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3dcoast__TN.jpgElevation is a critical component of any earth observation, and elevation data is frequently used for a wide variety of applications. Until recently, however, the available large-scale elevation datasets lacked precision and were outdated – some of the most-used data was more than 50 years old. Intermap Technologies, one of the companies most actively exploring and taking advantage of new opportunities in the elevation data space, has developed a highly accurate statewide elevation dataset for California leading to innovative developments in land use planning and floodplain mapping.


 Statewide Elevation Data Enlightens California’s Land Use Planning

Elevation is a critical component of any earth observation, and elevation data is frequently used for a wide variety of applications. Until recently, however, the available large-scale elevation datasets lacked precision and were outdated – some of the most-used data was more than 50 years old. Intermap Technologies, one of the companies most actively exploring and taking advantage of new opportunities in the elevation data space, has developed a highly accurate statewide elevation dataset for California leading to innovative developments in land use planning and floodplain mapping.

Intermap began collecting countrywide datasets in Europe in 1999, and Great Britain was the first NEXTMap® data set to be delivered with under 1-meter elevation accuracy. The company’s objectives have expanded broadly in scale and scope since that time, with an ambitious plan to collect countrywide data for Western Europe and the United States as part of its NEXTMap countrywide 3D mapping program. California was one of the first states to be mapped as part of the NEXTMap USA® program, and its statewide dataset was completed in 2006.

The data is collected with Intermap’s proprietary Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (IFSAR) technology, mounted aboard its fleet of planes worldwide. Unlike LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), the traditional airborne system used to collect elevation data, IFSAR has the advantage of being able to operate in cloudy conditions and at night, collecting broad areas quickly and efficiently. The resulting NEXTMap products include 3D elevation datasets and geometries of unprecedented accuracy, including digital surface models, digital terrain models, and orthorectified radar images.

As the accuracy of elevation observations increases on an ever-broadening scale, this data has grown in importance and utility. Many companies and counties in California have put this data to good use, providing services to enhance the quality of life for the state’s growing population.

 DTM Comparison.jpg
 Comparison of USGS and Intermap DTM data.

Planning for Smart Growth

California’s rugged and scenic terrain provides unique challenges for land use planners. Particularly in coastal San Luis Obispo County, planners have been challenged with an influx of retirees and families settling along its beaches, as well as the coastal mountains and steep canyons that are prone to landslides and wildfires.

The San Luis Obispo County Department of Planning and Building proactively designates safe areas for building by rezoning land for appropriate use and reducing subdivision potential in hazardous areas. “We’re responsible for ensuring that these high-risk areas are zoned appropriately,” said John Kelly, supervisor of the geographic technology and design team at the San Luis Obispo County Department of Planning and Building. “We needed accurate terrain models of the county to make good development decisions,” he explained.

With the goal of incorporating “smart growth” guidelines into its planning policies, the county decided to use Intermap’s highly accurate terrain data. “With the Intermap data we have the ability to look at terrain in 3D and base our development decisions on more accurate data that reflects the real world,” said Kelley. “We create virtual flythroughs so county decision makers can have a realistic view of building projects and their direct impacts on terrain and viewshed.

“There’s real value in being able to make the right decision the first time,” added Kelly, “and Intermap’s data has helped us achieve that goal.”

Riverside County is also experiencing a high rate of growth – in fact, it’s one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States. For Riverside County, as with San Luis Obispo County, responding to these growth pressures has necessitated more accurate data. “Planning for land development requires higher-quality contour data than we could get from U.S. Geological Survey data,” said Jeff Letterman, who supervises the geographic information system (GIS) department for the county’s Transportation and Land Management Agency. “We required more detail than the 30-meter digital terrain models provided.”

Intermap provided Riverside County with digital elevation data of greater accuracy and quality than the U.S. Geological Survey data. This data enables applications for land development, flood control planning, watershed analysis, and various other planning projects such as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program. According to Letterman, Intermap’s digital terrain models “allow us to address all of these types of programs and projects in a more sophisticated manner.”

Letterman was also pleased with the value he received from Intermap’s data. “When we looked at the high quality, accuracy, and cost of Intermap’s datasets, it was very easy for us to decide on this purchase,” he said. “We received great value for the money, and now we have more confidence when we work on planning projects.”

Transportation Planning

Because its borders contain 90 percent of the state’s oil wells and a wealth of minerals, including gold, Kern County is known as California’s “Golden Empire.” Population growth in the county has created roadway bottlenecks that have led to new transportation plans. One such plan is the “Southern Beltway,” a highway that will connect two major highways in the state’s Central Valley, bypassing congestion in central Bakersfield. In addition to other mapping projects, the country needed to develop flood area studies for the new transportation link because the planned route of the new highway crosses a large floodplain. Accuracy of the datasets used for the planning projects was clearly critical.

 Proposed high-speed rail map.

“For years, we used poor-quality elevation data for mapping projects,” said Jeff Orton, geographic information systems (GIS) coordinator. “When you have such a large area, precision is key. We needed more accurate, available data for our entire county.”

Intermap has provided Kern County with accurate, reliable digital elevation models that have enabled county planners to carry out projects more effectively and more economically, with tangible benefits. “Once we complete the flood mapping, we anticipate a tenfold direct taxpayer return on investment if we aggregate all county expenditures and public savings over a decade,” Orton said. “We know the returns will continue many times over because we’re constantly finding new ways to use the data to positively impact our region.”

Highways alone won’t solve California’s transportation issues. The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) aims to link existing rail, air, and highway systems with bullet trains operating at speeds of up to 220 miles an hour. The proposed high-speed train system stretches from San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento in the north – with service to the Central Valley – to Los Angeles and San Diego in the south, and could carry as many as 117 million passengers annually by 2030.

CHSRA selected URS Corporation, one of the largest global engineering design firms, as part of a three-firm joint venture team to provide engineering and environmental services for this statewide rail network. URS was tasked with defining track alignment and optimal routing for the high-speed train network.

“We required highly refined elevation data to create a preliminary engineering design for this massive project,” said Joe Devoy, regional manager and leader of URS’ Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Services in Southern California. “All we had was U.S. Geological Survey data, which lacked the detail required for this task. During this initial phase, we wanted to avoid hiring a survey company that would cost at least $1 million to obtain detailed terrain data between downtown Los Angeles and Palmdale alone.”

Intermap’s data enables companies that focus on large transportation engineering studies, like URS Corporation, to quickly and affordably meet their geospatial needs. “Intermap gave us what we required and only charged us for the information that we requested,” said Devoy. “Intermap’s data definitely met our expectations and the quality was even higher than we anticipated.”

Mapping Flood Risks

As demonstrated in Kern County, floodplain mapping is one of the most important applications for elevation models. Unfortunately, there has been very little data available at an accurate scale that covers broad geographies, and inaccurate flood mapping data has serious consequences for both life and property.

Based in Bakersfield, California, Cornerstone Engineering supports large-scale land development projects and requires high-quality digital terrain model (DTM) datasets to map alluvial fan floodplain areas. In order to conduct vital floodplain studies, the firm’s engineers needed large topographical datasets detailing expansive areas across California’s complex and varied terrain.

“We had been using the outdated U.S. Geological Survey data,” said Alan Whitten, engineering supervisor at Cornerstone Engineering. “We would have to combine this old topographic information with time-consuming field surveys just to get basic data. Basically, we needed quality data in order to serve our customers better and reduce costs.”

The company now uses Intermap’s reliable datasets and geometries, including DTMs and orthorectified radar images, for its numerous, high-stakes mapping projects. “We’ve cut out a lot of labor costs that we had in the past to prepare base maps for these studies,” Whitten commented. “Now that we have Intermap’s current and cost-effective datasets, we’ve been able to reduce the expense of a typical $10,000 to $15,000 flood study by one-third. We couldn’t turn out the quality floodplain studies that we have today without Intermap’s enhanced and accurate data.”

The Kings County planning department is another Intermap customer that is using the data for floodplain mapping. Kings County needed Intermap’s enhanced elevation data to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the California Department of Water Resources to revise the Digital Flood Insurance Rate Map (DFIRM), a federally mandated map update that delineates the 100- and 500-year floodplains and other high-risk zones.

“With this new data, we can see elevation changes more clearly, and quickly determine where the earth may have moved or the flood zone has intruded into the city limits,” said deputy planning director Greg Gatzka. “This information lets us know where the 100-year flood zone boundary may lie today.”

In addition to using the data for flood mapping and pre-analysis of public works projects, the planning department joined with the Kings River Conservation District to more effectively evaluate water levels around river channels.

“With Intermap’s data, we can analyze flood zones and plan to reduce potential flood risks in new developments,” said Gatzka. “We’re decreasing the potential loss of lives, property, and structures, as well as the impact on future development, by the thousands.”

Uniformly accurate elevation datasets offer ways to address a number of applications in the land use planning and floodplain mapping arenas – the possible uses, ranging from precision farming and forestry to coastal resource management, are nearly endless. Intermap continues to map the entire contiguous United States for its ongoing NEXTMap USA program. The company recently completed its NEXTMap Europe® program – acquiring 2.4 million km2 in Western Europe, where limitations posed by outdated, inaccurate, and inconsistent map data is also a major concern.

Matt Ball is Co-Founder and editor of the America/Asia Pacific at Vector1 Medi; e-mail: mattball at 

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