ecosystem services

Survive, Adapt, and Grow: EPA, Rockefeller Foundation Team Up for Resilient Cities

By Lek Kadeli

“City Resilience: The capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a system to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.”

Rainbow over a cityscape

EPA is a platform partner for 100 Resilient Cities.

EPA recently announced a partnership to help communities across the United States and around the world achieve that very definition of city resilience by supporting 100 Resilient Cities, pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. Agency sustainability scientists and other experts will help urban communities take actions today to realize vibrant and healthy futures.

100 Resilient Cities was launched in 2013 to provide urban communities with access to a network of expertise, innovative tools, and models that will help them meet and bounce back even better from serious challenges—from chronic stresses such as air pollution and diminishing access to clean water, to more sudden events including floods, “superstorms” and other weather events, and acts of terrorism.

To support the partnership, EPA researchers will work directly with urban communities to share a variety of innovative tools and initiatives they have developed to meet just such challenges. For example:

  • The National Stormwater Calculator, an easy-to-use, online tool will help communities effectively tap innovative green infrastructure techniques to reduce nutrient pollution and the risk of local flooding, while also planning for the increase of stormwater runoff that is expected due to climate change.
  • EnviroAtlas, is a multi-scale, geographical-based online mapping, visualization, and analysis tool that integrates more than 300 separate data layers on various aspects of how natural ecosystems benefit people. The tool provides communities with a resource for developing science-based, strategic plans that sustain the ability of “ecosystem services” to absorb and mitigate stresses—a critical aspect of resiliency.
  • The Triple Value Systems tool provides an interactive model built on the dynamic relationship among economic, societal, and environmental impacts. Simulations illustrate the tradeoff and benefits of different decisions, supporting consensus building in pursuit of sustainable, resilient communities.
  • Incorporating a new generation of low cost, portable, and low maintenance air quality sensors into community-based air quality monitoring and awareness resources, such as “The Village Green Project,” will help individuals take action to protect their health, and community leaders to reduce the impacts of poor local air quality.
  • CANARY Event Detection Software, developed by EPA researchers in partnership with colleagues from Sandia National Laboratories, is an early warning system for detecting contaminants in drinking water. Recognized as a top 100 new technology by R&D Magazine, it helps water utilities continually monitor for threats and take early action to minimize disruptions.
EPA's Village Green Project, a solar-topped bench with air sensors

The Village Green project

EPA’s leadership advancing the science of sustainability and resiliency makes us a natural fit for supporting 100 Resilient Cities. Joining the network of other “platform partners” will help us share our research results and best practices and expand the impact of what our partners and we learn. We are thrilled to be part of this important effort advancing more sustainable and resilient communities, and look forward to a future where cities across the globe survive, adapt, and grow—no matter what.

About the Author: Lek Kadeli is the Acting Assistant Administrator in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Along the Road to Sustainability

By Bob Perciasepe

Technology and open access to data and tools have ended the excruciating choice that generations of unsure car travelers have sometimes faced: forge ahead just a few more miles, or stop and ask for directions? Such stress has largely faded with the advent of dashboard-mounted, satellite-enabled navigation systems and readily available smartphone applications.

Getting to your desired destination is always easier when you have the right information at your disposal. That’s why today I’m excited to announce that EPA has released a tool to help environmental decision makers and local communities navigate toward a more sustainable future: EnviroAtlas.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Willingness to Pay for Green Space

By Marguerite Huber

Bike trail through residential green space

How much are you willing to pay for the benefits of low impact development?

Have you ever taken an economics course? If so, you probably studied the concept of “willingness to pay,” or WTP. A person’s willingness to pay for something is the dollar value they have attached to it. For most of us, it’s easy to decide how much we are willing to pay for a car or new home. But what about environmental benefits? EPA researchers are exploring that exact question for green spaces and land development options.

Low impact development (LID) and green infrastructure practices reduce the amount of stormwater running off a particular site. So in places where stormwater runoff has become a significant source of water pollution, the use of these practices has become more necessary. Low impact development benefits and characteristics can include:

  • improvement in air quality
  • increased natural areas and  wildlife habitat
  • improved water quality
  • aesthetic benefits
  • minimized parking lots and other impervious surfaces
  • increased access to transit, shared parking, and bicycle facilities

EPA researchers have identified an additional benefit of such practices: increased property values. They and Abt Associates contractors found that property values increase for both new developments and existing properties when located near green spaces associated with low impact development.

The researchers analyzed 35 studies and focused on predicting how much people were willing to pay for small changes in open space. The investigation evaluated the differences in value between open spaces with and without recreational uses.

Results showed that the design and characteristics of a low impact development affects the level of benefits property owners could expect, and that effects on property values declined the farther they are from open spaces. For example, consider a plan that includes a 10% increase in park space or other green space. Property values are projected to increase by 1.23% to 1.95% when located within 250 meters of such a green space, but by 0.56% to 1.2% when located 250-500 meters away. For a homeowner, that could mean a lot of money.

Overall, researchers found that the proximity to and the percent change in open space determined a household’s willingness to pay for low impact open spaces, but it may be site-specific for type of vegetation and recreational use.

Additionally, many states are encouraging developers to use these practices through regulations, incentives, and educational campaigns, so knowing which low impact characteristics maximize the benefits can be useful for policymakers and developers.

You don’t need to have taken an economics course to understand the concept of willingness to pay. It can be applied to the value you place on increased green space and improved water quality. So just how much are you willing to pay for the benefits of low impact development?

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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A New Beginning: Headwater Research

By Marguerite Huber

I like beginnings. They are a fresh start and influence our lives further down the road. Just like how we have new beginnings, all rivers have influential beginnings too. In a network of rivers up in the mountains, headwater streams are the uppermost streams furthest from the river’s endpoint or merger with another stream. They are the very beginning of miles and miles of rivers and have a great impact on what flows downstream.headwaterstream

Headwater streams and their catchments, or drainage basins, are necessary for the maintenance of healthy and productive streams and rivers. Headwater catchments also provide numerous ecosystem services to humans and the surrounding environment. These benefits include biodiversity, climate regulation, recreation, timber and crop production, and water supply and purification.

EPA researchers studied the importance of headwater catchments by focusing on the quantity and value of a few ecosystem services, and then projected that importance from a regional to national scale. They focused on three ecosystem services (water supply, climate regulation, and water purification) for 568 headwater streams and their catchments.

To assess the potential economic value of headwater catchments’ ecosystem services, researchers used published economic value estimates based on commodity price (water supply), market value (climate regulation), and damage cost avoidance (water purification).

They found the economic value of each ecosystem service as follows:

  • $470,000 – The average yearly value of water supplied through each headwater catchment.
  • $553, 000 – The average yearly value of climate regulation (through carbon sequestration) of each headwater catchment.
  • $29,759,000 – The average yearly value of improving water quality by reducing nutrient pollution.

Overall, the weighted average economic value for headwater catchments in the United States was $31 million per year per catchment. It is essential to note that the national importance of headwater catchments is even higher since the 568 catchments studied are only a statistical representation of the more than 2 million headwater catchments in the continental United States. I think it’s safe to say these beginnings provide some serious benefits!

About the authorMarguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Take Cover! (With Vegetation)

By Marguerite Huberbuffer

Take cover!

It’s a phrase you yell to protect against something headed your way. But did you ever think that phrase could be applied to pollutants? Well, it can – vegetative cover acts as a defense against non-point source (NPS) pollutants, protecting our lakes, streams, and water bodies.

Vegetative filter strips and riparian buffers  are conservation practices that help control the amount of sediment and chemicals that are transported from agricultural fields into water bodies. They slow down the speed of runoff and capture nutrients, keep more nutrient-rich topsoil on farmers’ fields, and reduces impacts on downstream ecosystems.

To improve water quality in large watersheds, conservation managers need to know what the problems are, where the pollutants originate, and what conservation practices work best.  However, investigating all of these factors at the watershed-wide level is a very difficult and complex task. This is why EPA is working with partners to supplement an existing watershed simulation model to estimate the efficiency of riparian buffers.

USDA’s watershed simulation model, Annualized Agricultural Non-Point Source Pollution (AnnAGNPS), is used to evaluate the effect of farming and conservation practices on pollutants and help decide where to put these practices.  AnnAGNPS also predicts the origin and tracks the movement of water, sediment, and chemicals to any location in the watershed.

To supplement this model, researchers from EPA, USDA, and Middle Tennessee State University developed a Geographic Information Systems–based technology that estimates the efficiency of buffers in reducing sediment loads at a watershed scale.

With the addition of this AGNPS Buffer Utility Feature  technology to the USDA model, researchers and watershed conservation managers can evaluate the placement of riparian buffers, track pollution loads to their source, and assess water quality and ecosystem services improvements across their watersheds.

Riparian buffers and other vegetative cover, such as filter strips, are considered an important, effective, and efficient conservation practice that has been shown to protect ecosystem services at a local level. However, their full impact on a watershed-scale is still subject to ongoing research.

 

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Helping Cleveland Communities

By Marguerite Huber

Vacant lot with dug out section for a rain garden; rest of the area covered with straw to prevent erosion.

Turning a vacant lot into a rain garden.

EPA researchers are turning vacant lots in Cleveland, Ohio into field research sites for exploring the effectiveness of tapping green infrastructure (GI) techniques for reducing stormwater runoff and improving local waterways.

Over the last few years, the research has focused on the feasibility of re-using land left vacant after home demolition to answer questions such as: does the lot have soil that can absorb excess stormwater runoff? Can it provide ecosystem services? And how does the re-use of the lot benefit the local community?

To find out, the researchers initially looked at tree cover, the amount of rubble left after demolition, and ease of water movement on the lot. The cost of preparing the lot for re-use was dependant on the type and quality of demolition.

This research then paved the way for additional projects where EPA researchers have been studying stormwater management through GI installations, such as rain gardens and bioswales, in the vacant lots of Cleveland’s Historic Slavic Village neighborhood.

An ORISE fellow working on the project, Olivia Green, says “green infrastructure allows us to invest in natural capital and nature’s ability to absorb and redistribute stormwater. If we tap into natural capital and ecosystem services, we could manage stormwater to a high degree of quality for potentially less cost.”

Green and her colleagues are gathering baseline hydrologic and ecosystem services data. They will then use this data to collaborate with the neighborhood on a plan to use GI elements throughout the community. With continual monitoring, researchers can estimate the impact of GI implementation and identify where modifications need to be made.

Through the research, scientists hope to find a way to reduce stormwater volume, increase habitats for bees and other pollinators, and increase ecosystem services. But the data is starting to show that local streams and watersheds aren’t the only elements reaping the rewards. Reductions in violent crime and increasing property values have been recorded in the same neighborhoods where green space has replaced former abandoned, unattractive lots.

“We may create a culture that is more connected with the environment in the long term,” Green explains. The results of the research will not just benefit the residents of Cleveland, but could ultimately benefit communities everywhere, inducing a national culture that is more in tune with our environment.

About the author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Street Trees: More than Meets the Eye

By Marguerite Huber

Tree-lined street

There is more to street trees than meets the eye.

Ever since I took an urban forestry course in graduate school, I can’t help but always look at trees. I look at their bark, their roots, and their leaves. But when I look at trees, I am not just seeing their physical attributes. I also see all the conceptual benefits they provide to our communities.

Trees are not just a pretty fixture in your backyard. They provide many ecosystem services to our cities and towns, including: improving air quality, absorbing and storing carbon, supplying privacy, reducing noise, increasing property value, and decreasing building energy use. Trees are an important aspect of the green infrastructure that helps reduce storm water flow.

Amazingly, you don’t have to be an arborist to calculate tree benefits; you can use i-Tree, a USDA Forest Service model that uses sampling data to estimate street tree benefits.

In the fall of 2013, EPA scientists began research on “street trees” (trees growing in the public right-of-way, usually in between the street and the sidewalk) in nine communities in the Cincinnati, Ohio metropolitan area. The randomly selected communities all differ in geographic setting, socioeconomic characteristics, and street tree management practices.

Their research aims to answer such questions as: Can street tree structure and benefits be explained by management practices, socioeconomic conditions, or historical or geographic factors? How might invasive pests affect street trees and their benefits? How will existing street tree structure and benefits change in the future under various scenarios of tree growth and mortality, management practices, and pest outbreaks?

Researchers sampled more than 53 miles of street right-of-way along more than 600 street segments and inventoried nearly 3,000 trees. The street tree benefits were estimated using i-Tree Streets.

At this time researchers are still analyzing street tree benefits and their relation to community characteristics such as management practices, socioeconomics, and geographic setting. So far they have found management practices to be particularly important, with Tree City USA participants gaining greater benefits than communities that do not participate. Since analyses are still continuing, the findings on the other community characteristics will be released in the coming months.

When the project is completed, the researchers will have deliverables such as street tree inventory data that can be shared with community officials and an understanding of which community characteristics influence street tree structure and ecosystem services.

I invite you to check out i-Tree for yourself; I suspect as you’ll realize there are more to street trees than meets the eye.

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Around the Water Cooler: American Wetlands Month—and Your Dinner

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

ShrimpboatBayou country, located along the Gulf of Mexico, specifically Louisiana, has historically shaped the culture and the economy of the region. The Bayou—otherwise known as wetlands, swamps, or bogs—is an economic resource supporting commercial and sport fishing, hunting, recreation and agriculture.

Remember the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company? The shrimping business the fictional Forrest Gump started (and since inspired a real restaurant chain). Without clean and healthy wetlands, there’s no shrimping business, not in the movies and not in real life.

This month is American Wetlands Month and EPA is acknowledging the extensive benefits—or “ecosystem services”—that wetlands provide. From trapping floodwaters and recharging groundwater supplies to removing pollution and providing fish and wildlife habitat, wetlands improve water quality in nearby rivers, streams and lakes and even serve as a natural filter for our drinking water. They are the “kidneys” of our hydrologic cycle.

In Bayou Country, wetlands provide nearly all of the commercial catch and half the recreational harvest of fish and shellfish. They are extremely valuable to the region’s economy. Wetlands in the region provide the habitat for birds, alligators and crocodiles, muskrat, beaver, mink and a whole bunch of other important critters.

EPA researchers all over the country are looking at different ways to keep our wetlands clean and healthy. From nutrient pollution research and water quality research to buffers around rivers and stream habitat (“riparian zones”) and other green infrastructure efforts, scientists are ensuring that our wetlands can continue to do their work – providing a habitat, filtering out pollution, and supporting our economy.

This month, wherever you sit down to enjoy all the shrimp and seafood you can eat, remember that without healthy and clean wetlands, none of that would be possible.

For more information on how EPA scientists monitor and assess our wetlands, read here.

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry loves clean water, healthy beaches and great seafood. A regular contributor to EPA’s It All Starts with Science blog, she helps communicate the great science in the Agency’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources Program.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Science Wednesday:Rising STARs

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Aaron Ferster

This week, I had the pleasure of joining a few colleagues to talk about science communication at the 2011 EPA STAR Graduate Fellowship Conference here in Washington, DC. “STAR” stands for Science To Achieve Results, a competitive grant program EPA administers to advance human health and environmental science in support of its mission.

The conference brought together STAR grantees and STAR graduate fellows from colleges and universities across the country to talk shop about their research and learn about how their particular work fits into EPA’s commitment to science and engineering.

“The competitive STAR Fellowship prides itself for attracting, supporting and bolstering the next generation of environmental scientists, engineers and policy makers. In doing so, the program enhances the environmental research and development enterprise, advances green principles and bridges diverse communities that help EPA better meet its mission,” wrote EPA’s William Sanders III, Dr. P.H. in the Awardees Research Portfolio. Dr. Sanders is the Director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research, which administers STAR and other EPA grant and awards programs.

Conference attendees included STAR fellow graduate students conducting work in one of eight broad research categories important to EPA: global change, clean air, water quality, human health, ecosystem services, pesticides and toxic substances, science and technology for sustainability, and emerging environmental approaches.

As the editor—and chief cheerleader—for Science Wednesday, I am always thrilled to have the opportunity to meet EPA and partner scientists who are eager to share their work. The conference did not disappoint! While all the students’ topics have intimidating-sounding titles, (here’s one picked entirely at random: Novel Molecular Methods for Probing Ancient Climate Impacts on Plant Communities and Ecosystem Functioning: Implications for the Future), as a group, the STARs were eager to learn about opportunities for sharing their work. Please stayed tuned for updates here on Science Wednesday.

It’s great to see that EPA is supporting the next generation of scientists and engineers while it meets its own mission to protect human health and the environment. Cleary, the STARs are rising.

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is the lead science writer for EPA’s Office of Research and Development and the editor of Science Wednesday.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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