Wicked Problem


Matt Royer

Water quality is a "wicked problem," according to the National Academy of Sciences. In a recent report, the academy asserted that, like other complicated environmental problems such as chemical pollution, air pollution, and climate change, water-quality issues occur "on various spatial scales, may unfold over long temporal scales, and may have global implications." Furthermore, these wicked problems can be hard to define and complex, with no clear or simple solution.

"Access to fresh water and healthy aquatic ecosystems is one of our most pressing global issues," says Matt Royer, director of the college’s Agriculture and Environment Center. "And yet for many it can be an invisible issue—we turn on the tap, and we have clean water. We take it for granted. But we all need to recognize how important that resource is."

To develop new approaches and tools for addressing complex water-quality issues, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has provided grant money to establish the Center for Integrated Multi-Scale Nutrient Pollution Solutions within the college. The $2.2 million, three-year grant will fund a wide range of research initiatives and practical applications for improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Specifically, researchers will look at nutrient flows from agricultural, rural, urban, municipal, and atmospheric sources.

The Nutrient Problem

In Pennsylvania, as well as the nation, one piece of the water-quality puzzle involves nutrient runoff that pollutes streams. "Nutrients, primarily in the form of nitrogen and phosphorus, are present in animal feed—much of which we bring in from the Midwest," says James Shortle, Distinguished Professor of Agricultural and Environmental Economics and primary investigator for the new center. "Nutrients that animals don’t digest are typically spread as manure on farm fields. Depending on manure management and other conservation practices, nutrients in manure and fertilizer can run off into nearby streams. So all along the East Coast, these nutrients are degrading estuaries and posing a threat to ecosystems. That’s a concern in itself, but in our region many of those streams lead to and degrade the highly valued ecosystems of the Chesapeake Bay."

The EPA and other state environmental agencies are making water-pollution control a top priority, and part of the solution requires a better regulatory program. The current national water-quality policy is driven primarily by the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, but these regulatory frameworks, Shortle says, don’t adequately provide strategies that encourage communities and local residents to implement practices that protect water supplies and ensure water bodies meet water-quality standards.

Working at the Watershed Level

Part of the new center’s work will involve monitoring four small watersheds for nutrient flow. In each, researchers will look at how nutrients move within the landscape and where interventions could change that nutrient flow to achieve better environmental balance. "For example," Shortle says, "we have growing evidence that it can be a small part of a watershed that influences phosphorus load, so one thing we’re going to focus on is modeling and predicting phosphorus flow."

The watersheds to be studied—Conewago Creek, Mahantango Creek, Spring Creek, and Manokin River (on Maryland’s eastern shore)—represent different geographic regions. For example, the Mahantango Creek watershed lies in a ridge-and-valley shale region, and the Manokin River watershed lies on a coastal plain.

"We will need to create some customized approaches to meet the needs of the different landscapes and different communities," Royer says. "There will be lessons learned in each watershed that we can then apply to other watersheds."

Royer will lead the outreach and engagement piece of watershed research, working with stakeholders in each area. Through collaboration with representatives from the Farm Bureau, county conservation districts, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and others, Royer and his colleagues hope to increase community outreach and engage local watershed managers to provide them with tools to make decisions in implementing practices and strategies to improve water quality.

Focus on Science

The Center for Integrated Multi-Scale Nutrient Pollution Solutions is a multidisciplinary project that will not only focus on outreach and watershed management, but also will enhance the science of nutrient management. "We need to develop the science to better understand the sources of pollution and how interventions can help manage the problem," Shortle says.

Historically, best management practices, or BMPs, have been the dominant way of thinking about agriculture and water quality, Shortle explains. "The idea is that farmers can adjust current agricultural practices by adding new ones to better prevent nutrient loss, and that will solve the problem." BMPs range from implementing feeding strategies for animals to managing manure so more nutrients go onto fields rather than into the atmosphere to increasing nutrient use within crops to reducing the movement of nutrients from fields to water.

"But there are problems with focusing only on BMPs," Shortle says. "For example, some BMPs don’t remove nutrients; they just store them up. And BMPs can vary greatly in effectiveness and cost. So the smartest approach is to evaluate, in a strategic way, which BMPs really work, which will work best in your area, and how much it will cost."

Through the research grant, Shortle and his colleagues will ask bigger questions beyond BMPs and what works best on particular farms, fields, or watersheds. They will look, for example, at how nutrients move through the air and through transportation from the Midwest. And they’ll examine the concept of nitrogen cascade, which refers to flows and movements of nutrients through the air.

"We’re looking at the big picture," Shortle says. "Coal-fired generating plants are a major source of nitrogen compounds that get blown into the air and come down in rain. Nitrogen released from soils also goes into the air. We’ll look at these large-scale movements of nutrients and ask lots of questions, such as how reductions in coal-fired emissions in the Midwest could influence our nutrient pollution problems here in Pennsylvania."

One of the center’s research teams will focus on ecosystem services—the concept that environmental systems provide valuable services, such as clean water for drinking, boating, swimming, and fishing; habitat for birds; and carbon sequestration, among many others. "We will be predicting changes in ecosystem services that will come within the watersheds that we’re managing, but also downstream," Shortle says. "We’ll look at the reach and value of ecological services and put dollar values on those services."

Watershed_Creek.jpgChesapeake Bay Program

Conewago Creek Project

Although the Center for Integrated Multi-Scale Nutrient Pollution Solutions is a new initiative, ongoing water-quality work in Dauphin, Lancaster, and Lebanon Counties’ Conewago Creek watershed has helped lay a foundation for the center’s research efforts. In 2008, after receiving feedback from a statewide conference on agriculture and balance that was held at Penn State, Shortle and his colleagues began to consider what role the University could play in helping restore the Chesapeake Bay.

"We started asking how we could help facilitate success stories on the ground, and we reached out to our agricultural and environmental stakeholders who are working on issues related to agriculture and water quality," Shortle says.

From that effort came the idea of selecting a small watershed where Penn State could serve as a facilitator in watershed management. Says Royer, "We looked for a watershed that was small enough that we could really make a difference on the landowner scale, but not so small that we’d have little impact. The Conewago emerged as the ideal watershed. It’s a good size; it’s an agricultural watershed; and it’s a watershed that has water-quality problems related to agriculture."

The college’s Agriculture and Environment Center received funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to work with farmers and residents in the Conewago Creek watershed, which was designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as Pennsylvania’s “Showcase Watershed” and as a priority watershed by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Watershed partners increased their outreach efforts, and many farmers responded by developing conservation plans and implementing best management practices. Farmers served as role models for nonfarmer residents in the watershed, and partners helped residents develop stormwater plans for their properties and implement stormwater best management practices, including planting rain gardens, collecting rainwater in barrels, and planting trees along streams.

"Whether it’s a farm or a residential property, a lot of research shows that planting trees is better for improved water quality than a grass buffer, for example," Royer explains. "Reforesting is great for water quality because of the whole ecological system you’re creating. Leaf drop provides nutrients for the bugs and critters that live in the stream, and it all works together as a kind of clean-water factory."

In the Conewago Creek area, volunteers have planted thousands of trees near streams. As well, many farmers have put up fencing on stream banks to prevent livestock from having direct access to streams. "Work on even the smallest of headwater streams is important," Royer says. "People think, ‘I just have a trickle on my land, so what difference could it make?’ But that’s where it all starts. In our work with the Conewago Creek watershed we’ve seen light bulbs go off when people realized their little stream is actually incredibly important in the grand scheme of things."

Royer and his team initiated other farming practices in Conewago Creek, including planting cover crops and using no-till methods, which help cut down significantly on erosion and improve soil health. "One of our partners in water-quality efforts, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has a saying: ‘Soil is meant to be covered.’ Fall cover crops give you winter cover on that bare ground, which helps prevent soil from eroding into streams." Soil-loss-prevention measures also include building terraces and grass waterways to divert water flow on sloped fields. Already, thousands of feet of terraces have been built in the Conewago Creek area as a result of the partnership’s efforts.

Through ongoing work in the Conewago Creek watershed, as well as the other watersheds included in the new grant, Royer and his colleagues hope to continue to raise awareness of water-quality issues as well as provide local stakeholders with the information and tools they need to make the best management decisions on all scales.

"Water quality is everyone’s business," Royer says. "The way we use the land has a direct impact on our water. This is an exciting opportunity for us to integrate the research of the college with ongoing efforts in small watersheds to achieve water-quality goals. And it’s a perfect way to help fulfill our land-grant mission."

By Krista Weidner

The Center for Integrated Multi-Scale Nutrient Pollution Solutions is one of four new National Centers for Innovative and Sustainable Water Research established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to researchers from Penn State, scientists from the University of Maryland and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are participating in the project.