Promising Partnerships – A Success Story

Promising Partnerships – A Success Story

Chuck Fritz, Executive Director

It is hard for me to fathom, but it’s been over 22 years since the inaugural International Water Institute Chair, George “Bud” Sinner convinced me to become the Executive Director.  My decision to accept was in no small part due to the fact that Bud was the former ND Governor who rarely took “no” for an answer.  Bud started our conversation about my role with this new (unfunded I might add) organization with “I need your help” and convinced me that we could “make a difference”.  Success, in my mind was inevitable. 

One of the first things Bud wanted from me and the new organization was a strategy to improve Red River Basin elevation data and products.  Prior to, and during, the 1997 flood, Red River Basin emergency managers struggled mightily to predict, prepare, and respond.  At that time, elevation data were woefully inadequate.  The only available elevation data in the Red River Basin were derived from USGS 1:24,000-scale 30-meter topographic maps created in the 1950s and 1960s.

During the late 1990’s, new technologies to acquire accurate elevation data over large areas were just beginning to evolve.  I first heard of Light Detecting and Ranging (LiDAR) data when I was the administrator at the Red Lake Watershed District.  A friend of mine from the Red Lake Band of Chippewa gave a presentation that described LiDAR data/technology and how the Tribe used it to resolve a shoreline ordinance issue.  The potential applications to water resource management were awe-inspiring.

I knew LiDAR technology might be the answer to address elevation Red River Basin data needs.  Bud agreed and an idea that would later become the Red River Basin Mapping Initiative (RRBMI) was formed.  When we first started touting the idea for a basin-wide LiDAR collect, there were many who thought – and told us – we were crazy; including a few of the original IWI board members.  Although LiDAR technology have improved in the early 2000s, there were still huge technological and logistical obstacles to overcome.  Undertaking a project to collect, process, store and disseminate over 8TB of LiDAR elevation data across the entire U.S. portion of the Red River Basin (45,000 square miles) was unprecedented.

By the mid-2000s, it was clear technologies had evolved (the first 500GB external hard drive appeared in 2005) to the point where we thought we could pull it off.   Although we knew we’d be pushing the technology envelope, Bud and I launched the RRBMI.  After 18 months of outreach to local and state partners in ND and MN and two trips to Washington D.C., we raised the $5 million dollars needed for the RRBMI (collect/process >45,000 square miles of LiDAR data, conduct a third-party quality assurance review, and create an online data viewer and dissemination portal).  The rest, as they say, is history.

Of the many successes I have been a part of over my career as the IWI Executive Director, the most rewarding – and fun – was the RRBMI.  Rewarding because I sincerely believe our efforts enabled resource managers to make better, more informed, decision.  Fun because I did it with Bud!