FARGO — About 15 years ago, a large part of the Red River Valley was surveyed using what was then a relatively new technology called LiDAR, which combines laser and global positioning system technology to create highly detailed maps of a landscape's surface and features.

Now, a similar campaign is collecting LiDAR data using three airplanes that will provide even better information about the topography of approximately 20,000 square miles of the Minnesota portion of the Red River Watershed. The survey data aids in flood protection and conservation efforts.

That collection effort is about halfway done and could wrap up in a matter of weeks, according to Robert Sip, executive director of the Red River Watershed Management Board, the lead agency for the LiDAR survey.

Once the planes have collected the data, it will take about a year and a half for that information to be put into a useable map form that members of the public and organizations can access free online.

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That processing will be done by the International Water Institute, which is partnering with RRWMB on the LiDAR collection project.

The International Water Institute will use the new data, which is being collected by the Sanborn Map Co., to update its current map portal, which can be found at https://gisapps.iwinst.org/map-portal/.

By going to the portal and clicking on the map found there, visitors can zoom into the map to observe high-resolution details of the area's topography.

Filters can be applied to the map depending on what type of information is desired, including elevation data.

The images below are screen captures from the map portal, with one showing a portion of Fargo and Moorhead and the other showing a detailed closeup of Woodlawn Park in Moorhead.

Because the data was collected years ago, some features in the map images have changed.

This image of portions of Fargo and Moorhead was obtained from a map portal created by a partnership between the Red River Watershed District Board and the International Water Institute. Image courtesy RRWDB.
This image of portions of Fargo and Moorhead was obtained from a map portal created by a partnership between the Red River Watershed District Board and the International Water Institute. Image courtesy RRWDB.

This detailed image of Woodlawn Park in Moorhead was obtained by zooming into a map found on the map portal created by a partnership between the Red River Watershed District Board and the International Water Institute. Image courtesy RRWDB.
This detailed image of Woodlawn Park in Moorhead was obtained by zooming into a map found on the map portal created by a partnership between the Red River Watershed District Board and the International Water Institute. Image courtesy RRWDB.

The latest round of LiDAR data collection is expected to cost about $2.3 million, with the RRWMB picking up the cost as a service to its member districts.

Other watersheds and county areas not currently part of the RRWMB will be paying for their geographic area.

The $2.3 million price is less than half what the first LiDAR collection effort cost more than a decade ago, according to Sip.

Chuck Fritz, executive director of the International Water Institute, said the organization uses data every day and has been doing so ever since the first LiDAR collection was done more than a decade ago.

"Most of our work with the LiDAR has to do with water quality and looking at conservation practices on the landscape," Fritz said.

He added that the institute has developed an application that is being used in North Dakota and Minnesota to identify where conservation can have the largest impact on water quality.

Chuck Fritz, executive director of the International Water Institute, talks about how the agency will help process data that is being collected as part of a LiDAR survey of the topography of northwest Minnesota. David Olson/The Forum.
Chuck Fritz, executive director of the International Water Institute, talks about how the agency will help process data that is being collected as part of a LiDAR survey of the topography of northwest Minnesota. David Olson/The Forum.

"It is an incredible technology, much more advanced than it was 15 years ago," Fritz said, referring to the data obtainable with the new LiDAR equipment.

Brad Arshat, director of strategic accounts at Sanborn Map Co., agreed.

"We have a laser scanner that fires out of the bottom of the aircraft about 2 million laser pulses per second," Arshat said, adding that the pulses return to the aircraft and give very precise measurements of the terrain surface.

That information, he said, is useful in many areas, including natural resource management and flood protection.

He said the technology gives engineers and hydrologists the ability to see where water is coming from, where it's going and how it is getting there.

If an area gets too much water too fast, Arshat said the LiDAR data can help communities decide how to keep flooding from wrecking people's lives and property.