Research Innovation: Ecosystem service valuation and market development to improve freshwater resource quality

Environmental Engineering; Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecology; Biogeochemistry (Earth Sciences); Environmental Sciences; Geographic Information Sciences

This project will leverage emerging methods in aquatic ecology, hydrology, informatics and environmental economics to develop new knowledge and management methods for sustainable freshwater quality.

Research Interests
  • Environmental Economics
  • Water Markets
  • Stormwater
  • watershed hydrology
  • water pollution
  • Aquatic ecology

Protection of freshwater resources is one of the grand environmental challenges.  The Clean Water Actof 1972 and its amendments recognized the need to associate upstream pollutant discharges with receiving water body degradation, and develop efficient methods to mitigate impacts. While point source have been effectively addressed, largely through waste-water treatment upgrades, non-point sources have been both difficult to identify and control as they can emanate from the full landscape.  Prioritizing the allocation of resources to treat the most vulnerable systems is an ambitious endeavor requiring new environmental knowledge, monitoring systems, and watershed ecohydrological modeling and informatics.  Significant advances must include a collaboration of experts in environmental science, engineering and economics.        

The ecological status of both freshwater and coastal water bodies are known to exhibit threshold behaviors in which a desirable state with high (or adequate) water quality can quickly transform into an undesirable state under certain conditions.  The vulnerability of this transformation is based on the current ecological and physical status of the water body and the amount and timing of water and pollutant inputs.  

Newly developed early warning indicators of these transformations provide the potential to develop more efficient prioritization of resources towards mitigation, but need to be leveraged within a watershed ecosystem and economic informatics and decision-making framework.  A hybrid mixture of regulatory and market-based mechanisms to environmental restoration has emerged over the last few decades to allocate resources to both reduce pollutant sources and increase potential sinks (sites that can take up and transform pollutants into less harmful substances) within contributing watersheds.  These methods need to provide an efficient system of incentives for societal allocation of resources to effectively sustain good quality water bodies, or improve poor quality water bodies.   Current mitigation strategies typically include land use transformation (e.g. conversion of upland agricultural to forest land), riparian buffers, stormwater Best Management Practices, and other treatments, each of which can be used in a hybrid restoration mechanism in the form of regulations, environmental trading, offsets and credit transactions.  However, the range of different mitigation mechanisms typically suffer from a lack of adequate information on water body vulnerability, the identification, quantification and treatment efficiency of pollutant sources and sinks, and on the sensitivity of receiving water bodies to the different pollutant loading reduction treatments.  This leads to large uncertainty and too few mitigation opportunities which tends to undermine market mechanisms that make use of pollutant trading and offsets.

To approach this problem requires skills and background of a multi-disciplinary team of watershed hydrologists, environmental engineers, aquatic ecologists, and economists.  In this research project, we join three faculty members crossing the Schools of Arts & Science, Engineering and Applied Science, and Business, each with different interests and tools, recognizing the need for synthesis across fields to make significant scientific and policy progress towards solving the major environmental challenge of providing sustainable and resilient freshwater resources.   

There are three strongly linked areas of research representing the core of our proposal:

  1. Development of a system to evaluate the current state and vulnerability of a receiving water body to threshold water quality degradation, and the sensitivity of the water body state to increases or decreases of nutrient loading, 
  2. Quantification and valuation of current watershed pollutant sources and sinks over the full upstream watershed, and the potential to improve the source-to-sink system for pollutant reduction by a set of environmental treatments and restorations, 
  3. Evaluate how market mechanisms to develop trading participants can be improved by providing information on water body vulnerability, potential for improvement, and the valuation of watershed treatments to restore freshwater ecosystem services.

Desired outcomes

Interdisciplinary papers in high quality journals

1-2 proposals to NSF, NASA, USDA-NIFA

Prototype system for developing market mechanisms to optimize freshwater protection in the mid-Atlantic