ecosystem services

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This Week in EPA Science

By Kacey FitzpatrickResearch Recap graphic identifier

Need an excuse to hang out inside? Here’s something to read while you stay out of the heat. Check out the latest in EPA science.

Foxes and Ecosystem Services at Western Ecology Division
Late this spring, a self-operated wildlife camera captured several photos of adult gray foxes carrying food items from surrounding wild lands onto the grounds of EPA’s Western Ecology Division Laboratory in Corvallis, Oregon. Find out what they were up to in the blog Foxes and Ecosystem Services at Western Ecology Division.

Investing in our Children’s Futures
To protect children from environmental threats and help them live healthier lives, EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences created the Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers (Children’s Centers). Read about the five new Children’s Center grants in the blog Investing in our Children’s Futures.

The Northeast Cyanobacteria Monitoring Program
As cyanobacteria bloom incidence continues to increase, EPA strives to create and improve methods for bloom prediction, monitoring, and management. The Northeast Cyanobacteria Monitoring Program will help generate region-wide data on bloom frequencies, cyanobacteria concentrations, and spatial distribution through three coordinated projects. To learn more about the program read the blog The Northeast Cyanobacteria Monitoring Program: One Program, Three Opportunities for You To Get Involved!

If you do decide to head outside, don’t forget the sunscreen! Here’s a little lesson in sunscreen chemistry.

Suncreen and Sun Safety: Just One Piece of the Story
It’s not surprising that sunscreens are detected in pool water (after all, some is bound to wash off when we take a dip), but certain sunscreens have also been widely detected in our ecosystems and in our wastewater. So how is our sunscreen ending up in our environment and what are the impacts? Find out in the blog Suncreen and Sun Safety: Just One Piece of the Story.

And coming up next week:

Let’s Talk About Wildfire Smoke and Health
Monday, August 22nd at 1:30 p.m. EDT
There are over 20 wildfires currently burning in the United States. Join us for a twitter chat with EPA research cardiologist Dr. Wayne Cascio and health effects scientist Susan Stone, along with experts from the U.S. Forest Service and the Centers for Disease Control, to discuss wildfire smoke and health.

To join the twitter chat and ask questions, please use ‪#‎WildfireSmoke and follow @EPAAir. Get more details in the blog Let’s Talk About Wildfire Smoke and Health.

About the Author: Kacey Fitzpatrick is a writer working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She is a regular contributor to It All Starts with Science and the founding writer of “The Research Recap.”

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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Foxes and Ecosystem Services at Western Ecology Division

By Randy Comeleo

Late this spring, a self-operated wildlife camera captured several photos of adult gray foxes carrying food items from surrounding wild lands onto the grounds of EPA’s Western Ecology Division (WED) Laboratory in Corvallis, Oregon.

A self-operated wildlife camera captures a recent photo of an adult gray fox returning to EPA Western Ecology Division with a camas pocket gopher.

A self-operated wildlife camera captures a recent photo of an adult gray fox returning to EPA Western Ecology Division with a camas pocket gopher.

Within a few weeks, photos from the camera revealed why the adults were carrying, and not consuming, their prey.  The pair had denned in a quiet corner of our campus and were delivering food to six pups!

A self-operated wildlife camera captures a photo of nursing gray fox pups at the EPA Western Ecology Division.

A self-operated wildlife camera captures a photo of nursing gray fox pups at the EPA Western Ecology Division.

The gray fox is a mesocarnivore – a mid-sized carnivore in which 50-70% of the diet is the flesh of another animal.  Mesocarnivores are often more numerous when residing in close proximity to humans where their foraging activities can provide an important ecosystem service: keeping the level of property damage by rodents to an acceptable level.

We have been thrilled to observe these usually secretive small canids carrying food for their pups, basking in the sun, and even climbing trees!  Gray foxes have adaptations such as short, powerful legs and strong hooked claws which enable them to climb trees and avoid larger predators like coyotes.

Four gray fox pups enjoy the early morning sun at the EPA Western Ecology Division (photo by Bonnie Smith).

Four gray fox pups enjoy the early morning sun at the EPA Western Ecology Division (photo by Bonnie Smith).

The pups are now learning to hunt with their parents and will forage on their own in several weeks.  The family will likely remain together until autumn, when the youngsters reach sexual maturity and head-out on their own.

About the Author: Randy Comeleo is an Ecologist for EPA’s Western Ecology Division research lab. He works primarily with the Air, Climate, and Energy research program as a Geographic Information System Analyst.

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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Upcoming Webinar to Highlight Research Funding Opportunity: Integrating Human Health and Well-Being with Ecosystem Services

Upcoming Webinar: March 22, 2:00 pm (EDT)

Family enjoying a hike in the woods.Many people have an intuitive understanding of how nature and ecosystems enrich our lives. That’s why so many of us spend our weekends enjoying nearby parks or devote precious family vacation time traveling to National Parks and Wildlife Refuges. But how do we identify and measure the critical ways in which natural ecosystems benefit human well-being in other, perhaps more practical ways through “ecosystems services” such as protecting public health, preventing floods, mitigating pollution exposures, and contributing to more resilient and prosperous communities?

Answering those questions is a major priority of EPA research, and the driving force behind a new research grant opportunity (“Request for Applications,” or RFA) entitled: Integrating Human Health and Well-Being with Ecosystems Services Request for Applications.

The RFA seeks applications for collaborative, community-based research that will foster the better understanding of how ecosystems support human health and well-being. Specifically, research teams will examine how communities can better integrate human health and well-being with ecosystem services. The Agency seeks to support research that will advance the science behind evaluating, quantifying, and incorporating cumulative impacts into decision-making.

On March 22nd at 2:00 pm (EDT) EPA will hold an informational webinar to share the research elements and review criteria for the RFA, and provide potential applicants with the opportunity to ask questions. Space is limited, and you must register in advance if you would like to attend the webinar.

Register now!

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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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.

More

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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