Beginning this week, riparians and boaters may notice a Boston Whaler with a curious raised platform edging along the shores of Elk and Skegemog lakes and the Torch River.
Trailing two men in the boat at 20 to 45 feet above the water will be a drone, flown by Dennis Wiand, owner of Zero Gravity Aerial, LLC. He’ll control flight and camera from the boat, capturing high resolution video of near shore waters and shorelines.
For years, watershed groups and lake associations have conducted periodic shoreline surveys to identify clusters of invasive species, hotspots of nutrient pollution, habitat loss and shoreline erosion — all significant threats to the lakes.
Surveyors used kayaks in 2017 for the most recent shoreline studies of Elk and Skegemog. That approach is time-consuming, labor intensive and can produce inconsistent results, especially depending on the human factor.
This year, ESLA embraced a new technology — video imagery recorded with low elevation drone flyovers — to document the state of the shoreline.
Over about eight days in late July and early August, the flights will cover Elk and Skegemog lakes, the Elk River upstream of the dam and the Torch and lower Rapid rivers. A higher altitude video will be produced of the entire 42-mile shoreline.
“Several ESLA members heard a presentation on drone surveys last winter. Other lake associations raved that the results were game-changers for identifying issues and planning strategies to benefit their lakes,” said Bob Campbell, ESLA’s president. “So, we decided to take a closer look and our board became convinced of the value.”
The drone video captures potential hotspots of problematic invasive species like Eurasian watermilfoil, phragmites and purple loosestrife, as well as sediment erosion and algae growth sometimes associated with tiny creeks. The footage will help ESLA and its contractors more precisely target treatment for invasive plants.
Wiand, who lives on Long Lake, has worked to develop and improve the drone lake survey data collection in recent years, conducting flights mostly for large northern Michigan lake organizations like ESLA.
If he sees potential concerns as he follows the drone’s camera, he’ll move the drone in for a better look through the polarized lens and takes digital note of the location. The next step is post-flight analysis of the video.
For that job, ESLA has hired Kelsey Froelich, a Freshwater Solutions, LLC biologist and high school science teacher. Kelsey has developed techniques to scroll through the video to create a database of what it shows. That will help ESLA do short-term follow-up and create a permanent record for comparison of changes in the shoreline and near-shore waters.
That would allow, for example, ESLA boards to analyze the effectiveness of campaigns to encourage riparians to maintain natural shorelines or plant greenbelts to reduce erosion and nutrient deposition.
The ESLA board and Wiand also negotiated contract language in to address property owner privacy concerns. Video or images in which an individual property could possibly be identified cannot be released to a third party without consent of the property owner, ESLA and Zero Gravity Aerial. Upon request, individual properties can be removed from the recording.
“Our goal is to gather data and, more comprehensively than ever before, have the best evidence to work cooperatively with property owners to preserve and protect our waters,” said Linda Slopsema, an ESLA board member.
Slopsema recently explained the drone survey plan to neighbors and said privacy concerns were alleviated when she explained that ESLA isn’t doing anything new.
“We’re just using better technology” she said.
To view the separate shoreline surveys of Elk and Skegemog lakes conducted in 2017 by the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council and The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, go to: https://www.watershedcouncil.org/inventories-and-surveys.html