EPA, INEEL, and Utah State University pursue watershed management

December 06, 1999

EPA, INEEL, and Utah State University Pursue Watershed Management

Everyday, families juggle limited resources making sure the kids get to soccer or the dentist, the mortgage gets paid, and a little money is tucked away for retirement and college funds. Priorities are in a constant state of flux as short-term wants weigh in against long-term needs. Sometimes, not everyone is happy with the decisions. Watershed managers face similar challenges, and three institutions are banding together to sort through the confusion.

To foster collaboration about water management, the Department of Energy's Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and Utah State University have formalized a partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency Office of Science and Technology. The partners will collaborate on research over the next five years, planning ultimately to create an integrated computer-based decision support system and to promote collaborative stakeholder involvement. The agreement facilitates the exchange of personnel, services, and equipment.

The partners plan to enhance the EPA's Better Assessment Science Integrating Point and Nonpoint Sources (BASINS) program. BASINS is a system designed for state and local regulators to use in evaluating water quality using Geographical Information System (GIS) data, national watershed data, and environmental assessment and modeling tools. INEEL, USU, and EPA researchers want more and better data, more possibilities for data analysis, and the ability to display the information visually. The collaborators will add additional models, and uncertainty and probability assessment capabilities to BASINS. They are already focusing on tools that integrate information from different models and present the results in a user-friendly fashion.

Currently, much of the focus in water quality management is on setting total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) - enforceable limits on pollution that protect water quality. The goal behind every TMDL is to protect the environment and still allow the water to be used appropriately, to protect and yet be flexible enough to meet stakeholder needs. "The environment is like a slinky - it has a certain amount of natural resiliency," explains Robert Breckenridge, department manager of Integrated Environmental Analysis at the INEEL. "But if you stretch the slinky too far, it will never go back to its original state naturally. It's the same with the environmentŠit can only tolerate a certain amount of stress before you have spend a lot of money to correct the problem or face permanent damage."

Researchers want to tackle the challenge of setting reasonable TMDLs by using uncertainty analysis with modeling programs. This will allow them to identify up front what is most significant in a specific watershed, such as which nutrient or pollution source is the most detrimental to the health of the ecosystem. Instead of treating all the variables the same, they use Bayesian probability theory to 'weight' data and adjust for the uncertainty of information coming from different sources. Using this information, decision-makers can prioritize and choose management actions that yield the best results.

USU and INEEL are also developing statistical methods that will allow decision-makers to apply data from large, regional watersheds to data sets on smaller, local watersheds, and they are investigating ways to adjust models when the data is limited.

Perhaps the most significant result from this research will be that decision-makers will be able to test different management options by modeling the probable outcomes of their actions. Watershed managers will be able to calculate the probabilities of success for such options as adding a buffer zone along a stream, or moving a feedlot, and determine the 'potential for good' the change might have long term. And the partners hope to add economic data so that the cost and benefit of remediation options, as well as the effect on stakeholders, can be factored into decision making.

All three collaborators agree that TMDLs are not the final answer to water quality management and see this agreement as an opportunity to promote improved stakeholder involvement in watershed management. They also agree that although it would be impossible to monitor every body of water, communities needn't wait until they have permanent damage from pollution before beginning to manage a watershed. Improved data analysis capabilities will enable watershed advisory groups to be proactive instead of reactive.

"We really want this to be a grass-roots effort - getting information to the users, the people actually managing watersheds," said David Stevens, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Utah State University.

The EPA's Russell Kinerson, Chief of Exposure Assessment Branch, Office of Water, feels this collaboration is definitely headed in the right direction. "We've gone as far as we can in command and control mode - setting regulations like the Clean Water Act or Safe Drinking Water Act," he said. "Now we have to pursue other avenues to do whatever we can to protect water quality. Defensible, understandable information is the key to making good decisions."

Decisions about water usage are often debated in the courts. USU's Stevens feels that a more complete scientific understanding of the variables affecting watersheds, and the ability to investigate the effects of proposed changes, will help stave off litigation. "The framework to manage water quality is already there, but the gap in scientific understanding contributes to the legal wrangling we sometimes see," said Stevens.

As the Department of Energy's environmental management laboratory, the INEEL has direct responsibility to provide integrated, science-based engineering solutions that foster integrated environmental management and long-term stewardship. Utah State University has been researching water management for the state of Utah since 1963, when its Water Research Laboratory was founded, and has a distinguished history of supporting stakeholder education and teaching to non-university audiences. The two institutions are working to ensure that this collaboration will lead to joint proposals for additional funding, and ultimately lead to a self-supporting research organization.
The INEEL is operated for the U.S. Department of Energy by Bechtel BWXT, Idaho, LLC.

Technical contacts: INEEL representative - Robert Breckenridge, 208-526-0757, or rpz@inel.gov;
Utah State University representative - David Stevens, 435-797-3229, or stevens@quito.cee.usu.edu;
EPArepresentative - Russell Kinerson, 202-260-1330, or kinerson.russell@epa.gov.

INEEL media contacts: Deborah Hill, 208-526-4723, dahill@inel.gov,
or Mary Beckman, 208-526-0061, beckmt@inel.gov.

USU media contact: Lynnette Harris, 435-797-1359, or lynnette@media.usu.edu.

Visit our Web site at http://www.inel.gov.

DOE/Idaho National Laboratory

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