University of Vermont

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Spatial Analysis Lab Receives $400,000 Contract to Map Delaware River Basin

A land-cover map developed by the Spatial Analysis Laboratory (SAL) using satellite imagery and other high-resolution inputs.  This type of map facilitates study of tree canopy and its relationship to the built environment, helping guide long-term monitoring and efforts to maintain and improve a community's green infrastructure.
A land-cover map developed by the Spatial Analysis Laboratory (SAL) using satellite imagery and other high-resolution inputs. This type of map facilitates study of tree canopy and its relationship to the built environment, helping guide long-term monitoring and efforts to maintain and improve a community's green infrastructure.

The Rubenstein School’s Spatial Analysis Laboratory (SAL) has received a $400,000 contract to map land cover in the Delaware River Basin. The University of Vermont (UVM) funding is part of a larger $1 million grant the William Penn Foundation awarded to Shippensburg University and includes a collaborating scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Over the next two years, the research team will develop high-resolution land cover maps, land cover modeling tools, and a feasibility study for long-term monitoring of land cover changes.

The Delaware River Basin is the source of drinking water for more than 15 million people in four states. The watershed stretches more than 300 miles from the Catskill Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, encompassing parts of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. It provides water resources for about 5 percent of the U.S. population.

“Communities are dealing with numerous issues, ranging from the urban heat island effect to impaired waterways,” according to Jarlath ONeil-Dunne, the SAL’s Director and lead UVM investigator on the grant. “All of these issues are influenced by land cover, and if you don’t have a comprehensive and accurate accounting of your land cover, your ability to address these issues is severely hampered.”

The SAL has won both international and national acclaim for its land cover mapping techniques. Developed in collaboration with the USDA Forest Service, the SAL’s land cover maps are often more than 900 times more detailed than existing sources. For O’Neil-Dunne, the funding represents an increased realization of not only the importance of land cover mapping for decision making, but also the SAL’s ability to produce maps that are highly accurate.

“Our entire research team, consisting of Ernie Buford, Sean MacFaden, Anna Royar, and Tayler Engel, along with literally dozens of undergraduate students, has worked for the better part of the last decade developing these techniques,” says O’Neil-Dunne. “To be asked to collaborate with some of the leading land modelers at Shippensburg and the USGS, and to be funded by the William Penn Foundation, says a lot about the team we have at the SAL.”

“The partnership between the Rubenstein School’s Spatial Analysis Lab, Shippensburg, and the USGS is an excellent indication of the growing reliance on interdisciplinary, and interagency, collaborations to address complex environmental challenges,” acknowledges Rubenstein School Dean Nancy Mathews. “The outcome of this type of collaboration will lead to a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to monitoring and understanding the Delaware River Basin’s growing water quality challenges.”

The project will also advance service-based learning in the Rubenstein School. O’Neil-Dunne expects that 20-30 UVM undergraduate students will participate in the project during its two-year period.

The William Penn Foundation, founded in 1945 by Otto and Phoebe Haas, is dedicated to improving the quality of life in the Greater Philadelphia region through efforts that increase educational opportunities for children from low-income families, ensure a sustainable environment, foster creativity that enhances civic life, and advance philanthropy in the Philadelphia region. In partnership with others, the Foundation works to advance opportunity, ensure sustainability, and enable effective solutions. Since inception, the Foundation has made nearly 10,000 grants totaling over $1.6 billion. The Foundation’s assets exceed $2.3 billion as of Nov. 30, 2014.

The Foundation’s watershed protection program aims to ensure an adequate supply of clean water in the Delaware River watershed for generations to come. Support here is intended to help accelerate conservation of this precious resource and is provided for watershed-wide research, data gathering (as for this grant), advocacy, and related work focusing on four priority stressors: loss of forested headwaters, stormwater, agricultural run-off, and depletion of underground water supplies. On-the-ground conservation is targeted in eight sub-watershed action areas, or “clusters,” by advancing protection or restoration of water quality through projects that also directly address one or more of the four priority stressors. In order to foster deeper engagement with the Delaware River Watershed, the Foundation also focuses on developing and inspiring an active regional constituency for watershed protection. More information about the foundation is available on its website at www.williampennfoundation.org.