Montana DNRC using drone and lidar technology to better understand water flow

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Posted at 4:39 PM, May 16, 2024

HELENA — At Boulder Creek on Wednesday the Montana DNRC utilized drone and Lidar technology in order to have a more accurate understanding of water flow.

“The advantage of using lidar versus photogrammetry is the lidar unit can see through vegetation. And so being water resources and working around streams there’s lots of trees and vegetation around streams,” says David Saba, Hydrologist with the Montana Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Saba and his team were out at Boulder Creek on Wednesday using their drone to capture imagery of nearly 200 acres and one mile of creek. The drone uses photographs and Lidar technology to create a topographical map of the area. The Lidar technology uses a laser that bounces between the earth and the drone to help create the map.

“And then by doing this by creating these models we will better be able to answer that question of how much water is actually flowing at any given day, any given hour,” says Saba.


The first time they used this Lidar drone technology was in September of last year. The results were so good, they knew they couldn’t go back to previous methods and technology. This is one of dozens of sites that the DNRC crew hopes to map. The Boulder Creek site has a gauging station that measures water height which helps the DNRC understand how much water is flowing. Creating these maps helps add extra information to what is gathered from these types of gauges.

All this information can help to better manage water rights and create better policies.

“Water is a precious resource in Montana, and by better understanding how much is available at any given time, and under better predicting how much will be available any given year, we can make better decisions on how to use water,” says Saba.


The DNRC will still have to use GPS surveying equipment to manually assess the depth of the river because drones that have that sort of Lidar technology are currently cost-prohibitive.