USDA

Tool Saves Millions of Dollars After Wildfire

By Marguerite Huber

Wildfire conflagration on forested hillsides

Wildfire seasons are getting longer and burning more acres. Photo by USDA Forest Service.

Fueled by drought, disease, and suburban sprawl, wildfire seasons are getting longer and burning more acres of land. Last August, the Elk Complex wildfire burned more than 130,000 acres east of Boise, Idaho. Nearly 75% of the burned area had high to moderate burn severity, threatening the ecosystem and the region’s water. Substantial fires have already flared up this summer around San Diego, California, and Flagstaff, Arizona.

Once a fire is about 80% contained, scientists and other experts from the Department of the Interior’s National Interagency Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) team can go into the region and help develop emergency stabilization plans. They are aided by a resource—the Automated Geospatial Watershed Assessment (AGWA) tool—developed by researchers from EPA, the Agricultural Research Service (part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture), and the University of Arizona.

Originally developed as a computer model for use managing and analyzing water quantity and quality, fire recovery teams are now tapping it to identify potential threats to people, wildlife, and the land from post-fire flooding and erosion.

Watershed managers use AGWA to identify and assess downstream impacts and risks from increased flooding and erosion resulting from fire-related changes to habitats and soils. The tool can also be used to target restoration efforts, such as where to apply mulch and seed with native plant stock, to reduce such downstream risks.

“AGWA is a good example of a science product developed between two leading federal research agencies with mutual interest,” said EPA research ecologist William Kepner. “The tool provides a practical application with immediate benefits.”

For the Elk Complex wildfire, the BAER team estimates it saved approximately $7,000,000 to $8,000,000 by using AGWA to target 2,000 acres for treatment instead of the initial 16,000 acres identified through more traditional methods.

“AGWA is able to help the team develop a stabilization plan where post-wildfire impacts pose immediate and significant threats to people and property,” Kepner adds.

Additionally, the emergency response team has successfully used the tool for post-fire watershed assessments following fires in Arizona, New Mexico, California, Idaho, and Washington. More than 8,000 users, spanning six continents, 163 countries, and 4,903 cities, have registered to use the Automated Geospatial Watershed Assessment tool .

The AGWA tool has been included as an ecosystem services analysis tool in the new EPA EnviroAtlas, and can be downloaded here. It provides an important resource for meeting the challenge of longer, more destructive wildfire seasons.

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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Rethinking Wastewater

By Marguerite Huber

glass of beer

The next time you enjoy a beer you might be helping the environment.

The next time you enjoy a cold, refreshing beer or glass of wine, you might also be helping the environment. Over 40 billion gallons of wastewater are produced every day in the United States, and wineries, breweries, and other food and beverage producers are significant contributors.  For example, the brewing industry averages five or six barrels of water to produce just one barrel of beer.

But where most see only waste, others see potential resources. What we label “wastewater” can contain a wealth of compounds and microbes, some of which can be harvested.

One innovative company that has recognized this, Cambrian Innovation, is harnessing wastewater’s potential through the world’s first bioelectrically-enhanced, wastewater-to-energy systems, EcoVolt. (We first blogged about them in 2012.)

Cambrian Innovation is working with Bear Republic Brewing Company, one of the largest craft breweries in the United States. Located in California, which is suffering from severe drought, Bear Republic first began testing Cambrian’s technology to save water and reduce energy costs. Fifty percent of the brewery’s electricity and more than twenty percent of its heat needs could be generated with EcoVolt. Compared to industry averages, Bear Republic uses only three and a half barrels of water to produce one barrel of beer.

The EcoVolt bioelectric wastewater treatment system leverages a process called “electromethanogenesis,” in which electrically-active organisms convert carbon dioxide and electricity into methane, a gas used to power generators.  The methane is renewable and can provide an energy source to the facility.

Rather than being energy intensive and expensive, like traditional wastewater treatment, Cambrian’s technology generates electricity as well as cost savings.

Furthermore, the EcoVolt technology is capable of automated, remote operation, which can further decrease operating costs.

EPA first awarded Cambrian Innovation a Phase I (“proof of concept”) Small Business Innovation Research contract in 2010. Based on that work, the company then earned a Phase II contract in 2012 to develop wastewater-to-energy technology. Cambrian Innovation has also developed innovative solutions with funding from other partners, including the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Defense, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

With access to water sources becoming more of a challenge in many areas of the country, Cambrian’s technology can help change how we look at wastewater. It doesn’t have to be waste! Wastewater can instead be an asset, but only as long as we keep pushing its potential. That can make enjoying a cold glass of your favorite beverage even easier to enjoy!

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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Big Improvements in Little Rock

Little Rock philanthropist Anita Davis discusses her efforts to revitalize the downtown with senior officials and staff from EPA, HUD, DOT, and USDA. Photo courtesy of the city of Little Rock.

Little Rock philanthropist Anita Davis discusses her efforts to revitalize the downtown with senior officials and staff from EPA, HUD, DOT, and USDA. Photo courtesy of the city of Little Rock.

This Monday and Tuesday, I spent time with Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Deputy Secretary Maurice Jones, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden, and Department of Transportation (DOT) Acting Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Beth Osborne touring ongoing redevelopment efforts in Little Rock, Arkansas. Through the HUD-DOT-EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities, each of our agencies has invested in Little Rock. Our tour gave us the chance to see how these investments are making a real difference.

In 2011, our Greening America’s Capitals program provided support to help the city envision improvements to the Main Street corridor downtown. With additional support from Clean Water Act funds, the city starting putting in place some of the green infrastructure improvement ideas born from that workshop.

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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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Brevard, NC + Sustainable Approaches = Jobs and a Cleaner Environment

By Matthew Dalbey

On November 17, I traveled with Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe and USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan to Brevard, North Carolina, a town of fewer than 7,000 people in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The deputies held a roundtable discussion with local officials, community organizations and businesses under the auspices of the White House Rural Council, and released a report, Supporting Sustainable Rural Communities , by the HUD-DOT-EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities and USDA.

Brevard and the surrounding region exemplify how rural towns can use sustainable approaches to create jobs and protect the environment. These approaches include economic development strategies and land use policies that support agriculture, foster thriving main streets, and build on competitive advantages to improve quality of life.

The deputies toured a former paper mill and Superfund site that has been cleaned up and is now ready for redevelopment. The mill was once the largest employer in Transylvania County, so its closure in 2002 was an economic blow. Thanks to an innovative partnership between the developers, EPA, the state of North Carolina, and other stakeholders, the site is being redeveloped with homes, stores, and accommodations for visitors to the Pisgah National Forest. The development is connected to downtown Brevard and the national forest by a bicycle and hiking trail. And it will create over 2,800 permanent jobs.

Deputy Perciasepe called the Partnership report a “physical manifestation” of the four agencies’ commitment to helping public investments work better for rural America and creating good conditions for private investment. The report outlines how rural communities can use programs from the four agencies to get better results for their economies, environment, communities, and public health. Deputy Merrigan noted the Partnership’s efforts to support main streets in small towns, which are critical to the future of rural America.

Having worked on the Partnership since it began in 2009, and particularly on rural issues, I found this trip particularly gratifying. I also enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the rural work we do with the chief operating officers of two agencies with huge footprints in rural America. It was a terrific experience to be in Brevard to hear how leaders in this region are using sustainable approaches to create great places to live—and to show other communities across the country that these strategies can improve quality of life in rural America, even in these challenging economic times.

About the author: Matthew Dalbey is director of the Federal and State Division in the Office of Sustainable Communities.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.