By Trystin Moran and Andrea Price

As water resources engineers, our work is heavily influenced by the natural world. Accordingly, we frequently use our water resource toolbox: publicly available data and tools to design, permit, and construct our projects in irrigation, stream restoration, bridge design, flood mapping, and more.

These databases are also helpful for conservation districts, non-profits in conservation and land use planning, government authorities, landowners, and river recreationalists.

Here’s a list of the online tools we’ve found useful for our work in and around Montana. Many websites listed below are equally helpful in other states, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and more. These tools are our first stop when we’re getting preliminary information about the natural resources of a project area.

Google Earth

Google Earth is a digital tool that lets you explore a detailed, 3D map of the Earth using satellite imagery, allowing you to view landscapes, cities, and even historical changes over time. On many projects, our first step is to explore the site on Google Earth.

Google Earth imagery is often the highest-resolution image that is publicly available, so we may download screenshots of our site and use them as the base for a map or a plan-view drawing. In addition, we sometimes export a quick map from Google Earth—when there’s no need to add additional information or analysis, this can be the most efficient way to create a figure.

Google Earth also has a couple of great features for stream restoration. Using historical imagery from the last 40 years, you can track the migration of a stream by flipping through older map imagery and tracing polygons around the stream as it appears in each image. You can then use this information to predict how the stream will move.

Another important step in designing a restored stream channel is characterizing the slope of a stream and the shape of its valley. For this, Google Earth can generate a rough elevation profile of a river, a valley cross-section, or any other path you draw.

When should I use this tool?

Communicating with the public, preliminary site assessments, and interagency communication.