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Virginia Tech researchers: As rain and temperatures increase, so will costs to mitigate pollution

April 7, 2017

Zach Easton Zach Easton (left) explains a bioreactor
Zach Easton (left) explains how a bioreactor can help curb pollution in the Cheaspeake Bay watershed.

Costs to reduce pollution will increase with climate change, according to researchers in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

A multi-institutional study led by the university was part of a broader National Science Foundation grant-funded project designed to examine pollution from both urban and agricultural sources.

With Chesapeake Bay watershed partner states under pressure by the Environmental Protection Agency to improve water quality by 2025, results from this study provide a compelling argument for watershed states to front-load best management practices as a cost-effective way to achieve their water-quality goals.

“The health of the Chesapeake Bay is vital for so many industries, fields, and people,” said Zachary Easton, lead project investigator and Virginia Tech associate professor of biological systems engineering. “That’s why a project like this is so intriguing. You’ve got researchers from multiple fields and multiple universities coming together saying, ‘This is important, and this is why’.”

Climate projections forecast a rise in temperatures and precipitation that would lead to an uptick in nutrient-rich runoff into Chesapeake Bay tributaries. Uncontrolled nutrient-rich runoff could have detrimental effects on the bay’s ecosystem, encouraging excess algae growth and stifling aquatic life in the long-term.

Teaming up with researchers from Penn State and the University of Maryland, Virginia Tech professors and graduate students conducted the urban leg of the project by analyzing the Difficult Run watershed, located in Fairfax County, Virginia.

“The Difficult Run watershed was selected as a representative of other urban watersheds in the Eastern U.S.,” said co-investigator Darrell Bosch, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. “And our economic models, which accounted for weather uncertainty, showed that costs of meeting water-quality goals in Difficult Run increase under climate change.”

The Difficult Run project examined these effects from not only an economic standpoint, but also in terms of hydrology and biogeochemistry with respect to current and predicted climate change.

“Other studies have measured nutrient levels in the bay and analyzed the effects of best management practices,” said Easton, who is in both the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering. “But our project is unique in that it takes climate change into account.”

The crossdisciplinary study utilized meteorological data provided by Penn State Professor Raymond Najjar and his students to develop hydrological and economic models that compared current conditions to predicted conditions under climate change.

Nasrin Alamdari, of Tehran, Iran, a Virginia Tech doctoral student studying biological systems engineering, simulated current and predicted future nutrient loads in the Difficult Run watershed given the weather data. Jonathon Giuffria, of Long Beach, Mississippi, an Environmental Protection Agency economist who was a Virginia Tech master’s student in applied economics at the time of the study, simultaneously led the team in creating the economic model.

“While our results favored specific management practices, part of our recommendation to policymakers is to implement more and varied practices now to account for greater nutrient loads and loading variability expected in the future,” said Giuffria. “By addressing these changes early, policymakers can craft a plan to utilize multiple practices that will ultimately save municipalities the most money over the long run.”

This research comes just months before partner states must reveal their implementation plans to meet their 2025 goals to the EPA.

“There are clear gains to be had from taking climate change into account,” said Bosch. “And it’s in the states’ best interest to choose the most cost-effective water-quality control practices. If we could build software that takes these factors into account, and make it work for all nonpoint sources, we would have a really powerful tool for discerning the best implementation strategies for all jurisdictions.”

With the impending deadline, the Chesapeake Bay Research Consortium, in conjunction with the Chesapeake Bay Program, is searching for ways to utilize this tool on a broader scale, making it applicable for watersheds throughout partner states and accessible to all municipalities.

Software or no software, by January 2018 all partner states will have to give an account of their progress and their plans for meeting 2025 water quality goals. The concern is,  how far will they have come?

Written by Jillian Broadwell

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