Research

Finding Pollution Hot Spots in Local Watersheds

During the past summer, I had the awesome opportunity to work with Simona Trandafir, Emi Uchida, and Todd Guilfoos of URI’s Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics (ENRE) for the North East Water Resources Network (NEWRnet ) EPSCoR research project funded by the National Science Foundation. Other universities involved in NEWRnet are Salve Regina University, University of Vermont, and University of Delaware. The research focused total maximum daily loads (TMDL) of freshwater watersheds. Researchers chose three types of watersheds – urban, agricultural, and forest – to figure out what kind of land use affected the water quality. ENRE’s part of the research was split into two parts: one to develop a computer simulation experiment of stakeholder’s decision-making related to water quality, and then to actually go out in the field to find hot spots of pollution and talk to stakeholders.

Interns

Before I could even start my internship at the university, I was on a train with fellow interns from URI and Salve Regina to Delaware for a convention where we met thirteen other interns, each with his or her own project. Some were going to take water samples by hand while others were going to set up sensors in the steams and a few were going to create the computer simulation experiments. My project for the summer was to go out in the field and find hot spots of water pollution within the watersheds. While in Delaware I was able to make friends while learning about TMDLs and the NEWRnet mission. We were given tours of water treatment facilities in Wilmington, Delaware and brought to Delaware’s urban and forest watersheds. Our days were 8am-5pm, but once we were done we were able to explore the restaurants around the university and get to know the people we would be working with for the summer. On our last full day we even went to a rope and zip-lining course!

Drinking water

Once I got back to Rhode Island, the rest of the URI and Salve Regina team and I were given a tour of Bailey’s Brook and Maidford River Watersheds on Aquidneck Island in Middletown, Rhode Island. Bailey’s Brook is the urban watershed and Maidford River is the agricultural watershed. Since Aquidneck Island does not have much forest, the pristine forest watershed for Rhode Island is the Scituate Reservoir Watershed. Once I had an idea of where the watersheds were located, I began researching through secondary sources policies in place to protect the water, what types of pollutants the town of Middletown was most concerned with, and potential hot spots of water pollution. I met with Simona once a week to discuss my findings and figure out where I needed to go from there. Once I had a better understanding of TMDLs, I contacted the Town Planner of Middletown, various people from Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and Aquidneck Land Trust to try to find out what their future plans were, if any.

Before my internship I was not fully aware that there is still pollution in our drinking water. On top of this new knowledge, I also gained valuable skills such as interviewing and researching and developing further questions to continue a research project that extends beyond classroom deadlines. Walking into this internship I had no idea what to expect, but I encourage all ENRE majors to have one under their belts before graduation. Internships are great opportunities to learn something new, gain valuable skills, and meet new people along the way.

By: Kellie Brown

December 11th, 2014

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Exploring Wisconsin Farms and Water Quality

I spent this past summer conducting National Science Foundation (NSF) research at the University of Wisconsin-Stout alongside a team of 10 students from across the country. Each student came from a different academic discipline (both natural and social sciences), making it one of the first interdisciplinary Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) ever funded by NSF. I worked most closely with another economics student and a research mentor to evaluate the economic impacts of phosphorus pollution and mitigation within a watershed in Wisconsin. This project is part of a larger, long-term, interdisciplinary research project looking at the issue of toxic blue-green algae blooms in a Wisconsin lake, a watershed-wide issue involving many stakeholders, including farmers, citizens, and policymakers. I am passionate about the environmental impacts of agricultural systems, so this internship opportunity was a perfect fit for my interests, as well as my academic and professional goals.

I designed and disseminated surveys to Wisconsin farmers to attempt to better understand trends in Best Management Practice (BMP) adoption by capturing the economic landscape of Wisconsin farms. BMPs are ecologically sensitive alternatives to conventional farming practices. Soil loss and declining soil health are of heightening concern to Wisconsin farmers, policymakers, and citizens as these issues can be detrimental to profits and yields and can damage water quality through sedimentation and nutrient loading. In this watershed, excessive phosphorus loading from soil loss causes blue-green algae blooms that are toxic, unsightly, and a sign of an unhealthy ecosystem. BMPs can mitigate soil loss, but their effectiveness is still debated.

As I met with stakeholders, excavated through the massive piles of returned surveys, and journeyed through the world of statistical software, I found answers to important questions:

1) Which incentives do farmers find to be effective in easing their transitions to BMPs?

I found that farmers find technical help and education programs to be helpful incentives, along with the farmer-led councils that often provide these two incentives. The value placed on education and technical help is true for all farm types and sizes. On average, these incentives are more helpful than easement programs, tax breaks, and subsidies.

2) How interested are farmers in participating in education programs?

I determined that 23% of respondents have high interest in education, having mostly attended a variety of education programs. Likewise, 28% of respondents have medium interest in education, expressing interest in relevant education programs of all types as well as having participated in some education programs. Finally, 49% expressed low interest, being only interested in some or no education programs.

3) To what extent are farmers currently using BMPs?

This survey asked farmers about their use of conservation easements, crop rotation/cover crops, conservation tillage, waterway buffer zones, manure management, and fencing off livestock from waterways. I found that 45% of respondents are high adopters of BMPs, whereas only 33% are medium-level adopters and 22% are low adopters. This revealed that a large portion of farmers use a combination of various BMP options available.

4) Which variables and factors influence adoption of BMPs?

I found that various factors have significant impact on a farmer’s level of BMP adoption. For each additional incentive a farmer uses, their BMP adoption increases by 3.2% and for each unit increase in the frequency of soil testing, BMP adoption increases by 7.2%.

Those farmers in younger age groups increase their BMP adoption by 6.1%. This means that younger farmers are more readily adopting BMPs. Also, farmers that have children have a BMP adoption rate that is 9.5% higher than that of farmers without children. This could be due to an investment and interest in future generations.

On average, the prospect of increased profits and yield in the long-run encourages farmers of all farm types to adopt BMPs, whereas current policies and capital costs are generally perceived to have a more negative than positive impact, often hindering adoption.

Presentation

Overall, I learned an immense amount about farmer BMP adoption and water quality, but most importantly, I learned about the importance of connecting with others. The connections made between citizens, policymakers, and farmers via our research are making a profound difference in this community. Also, I have had many networking opportunities in the field of environmental economics and have been guided towards greater opportunities for further academic research and graduate studies, as well as career opportunities.

By: Lauren L’Esperance ’14

Environmental & Natural Resource Economics Major

Sustainability and International Development Minors

December 8th, 2014

Estimating the Effect of Climate Change on Rhode Island Agriculture (the $97 million question)

Pretty much everyone knows about climate change and many have some idea what the changes will be. But it’s unclear what the costs of climate change will be to Rhode Island. During the spring 2014 semester, I studied the economics of climate change in Dr. Corey Lang’s EEC 355 class. A major component of this course was a semester-long project working to monetize the impacts of climate change in Rhode Island. My group examined RI agriculture, while other groups studied topics such as fisheries and maritime transportation.

The first of four parts of the project involved researching the background of the sector. For agriculture, this entailed its worth to the state in terms of number of jobs, percentage of annual revenue along with the appropriate figures, and the prevalence of the industry in the state including its market base and variety of cultivated goods. Research into past data from the Rhode Island Census Bureau and the USDA agricultural cash receipts revealed that agriculture in Rhode Island makes up 0.5% of Rhode Island’s industry ($17.6 million), and 2,396 people rely on agriculture in Rhode Island to make a living.

The second task was to research the basic science of climate change in order to examine which impacts would most affect the state and sector in question. We found that the biggest threats to Rhode Island’s agriculture were not in simple temperature change alone, but in that and the changing weather patterns that could potentially change the state’s growing season averages.

The third part of the project was the most involved. The impacts were examined and monetized to determine the overall impacts to the state caused by climate change. We chose a number of impacts that form the majority of the sector’s worth: greenhouses, nurseries and turf (64.5% of Rhode Island’s agricultural revenue), corn (5.8%), dairy products (2.7-3%), and apples (2.6%). Depending on the impact chosen, different methods were used to assess their monetary value. Once the initial value was determined, it was discounted to the present day and totaled to find an all-encompassing total value with a present-day discount value. After research and projection, we estimated that climate change by the end of the century would cause an estimated revenue loss of $227,458,890.00. This translates to a total present value of $96,664,001.71 at a 1% social discount rate.

Lastly, we explored how adaptation could cushion or eliminate the negative effects of climate change on agriculture. We looked specifically at the use of genetically modified crops (GMOs), irrigation, increased use of greenhouses and the use of crop insurance. The increased use of GMOs was determined to be more detrimental than helpful and was dismissed as a likely tactic for use. The other options underwent cost-benefit analysis to determine whether or not the plan was an appropriate solution. We came to the conclusion that all of the remaining adaption plans would provide some benefit if they were all used moderately.

Though I took the course as an elective, I found this course and project essential to my education as an ENRE student. The project encouraged me to learn core competencies needed in the field of Environment and Natural Resource Economics and in my future career. Students involved in this project hone important skills from writing to cost/benefit analysis to excel. I personally learned a valuable lesson in group work and developed skills that will remain with me as an asset in my search for a career and in my daily work to follow.

 

by: Ellen Richer ’16

Environmental & Natural Resource Economics & General Business Double Major

Sustainability Minor

August 5th, 2014

Mangroves and Poverty Traps in Tanzania

Background

I have been asked to reflect on my experience in Tanzania, but it is proving to be difficult. You can see all the pictures, read all the books, and hear all the stories about poverty in developing countries – but nothing can compare to experiencing it firsthand. Despite being back in the United States, I feel like I am still there. Rather than seeing what is around me and falling back into my daily life, I can’t shake Tanzania from my mind.

I spent a little over two weeks in Tanzania conducting field research for my Senior Honors Project. I worked with Dr. Emi Uchida and Ph.D. Candidate Cathy McNally to study the relationship between mangrove ecosystem services and poverty traps. In short, we want to see if there are any ecosystem services from mangroves that could contribute to poverty alleviation. Mangrove habitats provide essential services to surrounding communities – including protection from erosion, flooding and storm surge, access to raw materials, carbon sequestration, and nursery habitat for many species of marine life. We specifically visited rural coastal villages that are the most vulnerable to coastal flooding and storm surge – in hopes of targeting the communities that have to deal with these shocks the most often.

Poor and vulnerable populations tend to rely disproportionately on natural resources to fuel their livelihood, as they lack access to other market goods and services. If their village is struck by a hurricane, for example, then they risk losing access to their surrounding damaged resources, as well as most of their assets. We want to understand the sources of risk that poor and vulnerable populations face and the ways in which they mitigate these risks. Without access to adequate risk management techniques, these populations tend to be more exposed to exogenous shocks and are exposed to the mechanisms that cause poverty traps to persist. As a result, they continue to remain in poverty indefinitely. If specific mangrove ecosystem services are found to directly contribute to the reduction of poverty traps, economic development and mangrove restoration efforts can both be improved.

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The environment

As we began our visits to the first few villages, I could clearly see the environmental degradation we were studying. Since all of the villages were coastal, the villagers relied heavily on fishing and shrimping. Yet, it seemed as though these marine populations were quite depleted. Despite spending an entire morning shrimping, some fishermen would only catch a handful of shrimp. On the beaches, we also observed fishermen using illegal nets that had very small holes. They would drag them along the bottom of the sea bed and pick up anything and everything. As a result, they would rip out sea grass, fish eggs, and juvenile populations of marine life. With such low fish and shrimp populations, they had no choice but to use these nets and get whatever sort of harvest they could.

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Coastal erosion, evidence of flooding, and mangrove degradation were also present. Even though mangroves are protected, we could see boats and houses made out of mangrove wood. Many communities also suffered from salt inundation in their public wells – causing them to lose access to fresh water. Every ounce of their lives depended on their surrounding natural resources – and they were slowly losing that access. These communities have to resort to illegal activities in order to survive, and you can’t really blame them. There are no other feasible options. After visiting the first couple communities, the severity and complexity of the problems these individuals were facing began to set in.

Some of the villages were located within the boundaries of SANAPA National Park. Despite the importance of the Park making an effort to set aside reserved land and conserve resources, the local populations didn’t always seem to benefit. With wild animal populations increasing, farmers’ crops would get trampled or destroyed more often. Furthermore, living within park boundaries limits these communities’ abilities to access their surrounding resources. Without the ability to utilize their environment, they can sometimes be forced to illegally poach or cut down mangroves causing further environmental degradation and unsustainable sources of livelihood. Although SANAPA provided positive benefits to the communities, such as clean water and more localized healthcare, it became clear that there were deeper complexities in the connection between these two parties.

Overall, the relationship between those in poverty and their environment was quite evident throughout our visit. They rely on the ocean for fishing and shrimping, on the surrounding habitat for hunting, as well as the nearby mangroves and coconut trees. Without these resources, they wouldn’t be able to survive. Studying this relationship became more important to me than ever. With everything I have learned in the classroom, I was confident that there are ways in which poverty alleviation and environmental restoration efforts can be improved.

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The people

Taking a step back from the surrounding environment, I began to observe the people. No matter where we traveled, we were always welcomed with open arms. I saw such strength, kindness and an amazing sense of community throughout these villages. Even though the village members didn’t always know who we were or why we were there, they were always so generous and respectful. It was refreshing to experience a culture where acceptance and generosity are the rule, not the exception.

And then there were the kids. In every village we visited, there were so many children. They would always come running up to our vehicle, mesmerized by the newcomers to their village. We must have interacted with well over 50 kids over the course of those two weeks – but one little girl struck a chord with me. The first time I made eye contact with her, she ran up and gave me a huge hug. Nobody else had so effortlessly accepted me. With my limited Swahili, and her inability to speak English, we mainly communicated non-verbally – but there was this deeper understanding between us. I could see how she saw the world, because I used to have that same glow in my eyes. She didn’t see the negativity – she only saw the good. All day I had been reviewing survey data and I knew I had hours left of work to do, but something about that innocence pushed me to put down my pen and spend a few hours with her. And I was so glad I did. She took my hand and I followed her wherever she wanted to go. We ran in circles, danced, played hand games and sang songs. She stayed right by my side. When I looked at her, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I used to have that same look – and how I would do anything to make sure she maintained that innocence. I never wanted her to see the bad in the world. At this point in the trip I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with the immensity of the problems these communities were facing. I understood why they were so hard to solve and have persisted for so long, and I began to wonder if I would ever be able to make positive change. Fatuma changed that. When I looked at her, I knew I was in the right place.

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Back in the States, I found the research fascinating and was really interested in constructing the survey instruments. I knew I loved numbers and would like analyzing all of the data. But it was that afternoon that my future was confirmed – I knew I was in the right place. I knew I would do anything to fight for a better world for kids like Fatuma. I accepted that there are going to be a lot of obstacles and a lot of failure when trying to improve these issues – but at the end of the day, it’s pretty simple. Everyone deserves access to basic rights, like adequate nutrition, clean water, clean air, health care and education. But everyone also deserves the right to reach their full potential. Everyone deserves a chance to see the world as a place of endless possibilities, as a place where they can reach whatever goal they want. And I may not have all of the answers now, but someday I’ll find out how I can make my mark on the world. I may not change Fatuma’s life – but I know she changed my mine. I can only hope that someday I’ll be able to help others like her.

 

by Sarah Martin ’14

Environmental and Natural Resource Economics Major

April 28th, 2014