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  • 02.21.17

How Big Data Could Find Simpler, Cheaper Ways To Repair Wildlife Ecosystems

A nonprofit has developed a tool to identify low-cost restoration solutions that have a major impact.

How Big Data Could Find Simpler, Cheaper Ways To Repair Wildlife Ecosystems

When a sewage treatment plant dumps warm water into a nearby river, it’s a problem for cold-blooded fish. On the Rogue River in Oregon–known for its salmon and steelhead–the wastewater plant in Medford, Oregon, considered building an expensive cooling tower to solve the problem. It ended up using trees instead.

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The plant started working with farmers and other landowners along the river, paying them to plant trees by the water–which proved an equally effective cooling mechanism as traditional infrastructure. The key was location: the Freshwater Trust, a nonprofit that worked on the project, created a data analysis tool to identify a dozen properties, out of hundreds, where trees could have the most impact.

The tool, called BasinScout, pulls together big data about the vegetation next to waterways, the amount of sunlight and soil type, the slope of land, crops grown nearby, water usage on farms, and other factors. Then it creates maps for water restoration projects, color-coding areas based on the priority. The highest-priority areas can have the most impact at the lowest cost.

“The reality is not all restoration is created equal,” Joe Whitworth, president of the Freshwater Trust, tells Co.Exist. Two restoration projects that each cost $50,000 and involve planting native plants along a stream might have very different results because of the soil or sunlight. “You can get 100 units of uplift from one project and 5,000 units of uplift from the other project,” Whitworth adds. (“Uplift,” in this case, means a quantifiable unit of environmental good that results from the action.)

In the past, it wasn’t possible to analyze big data in this way. Now, technology is fundamentally shifting how an environmental nonprofit can work. “The reality is environmentalism as it’s been practiced has kind of hit a wall,” Whitworth says. “We’ve been kind of doing the same game for more than a generation . . . We’ve been throwing effort and money at the problem and we’ve missed it.”

An example: Dead zones–oxygen-deprived areas in water that kill wildlife–have dramatically increased over the last few decades, despite tireless work from advocates and environmental lawyers. Now, with data from tools like remote sensing, environmentalists can track and model problems differently, find different solutions, and do that at a large scale. “We can sort through 39 million acres to find 4,000 acres that we need to address to fix a specific problem,” Whitworth says. “That’s totally new.”

In the Rogue River project, the BasinScout tool helped the team analyze three million acres to identify the 100 best acres in which to tackle the temperature problem. The improvement was more than twice what was required by the EPA. It also saved the city millions and provided new local employment.

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In Idaho, the Freshwater Trust used the tool to analyze another watershed–the Snake River–and identify places where a local power plant could help restore river habitat by overseeing the addition of vegetation along key tributaries and enhancing the river’s natural environment.

Each year, the U.S. spends around $38 billion on freshwater health and restoration. Whitworth believes that the funds could be spent more effectively by using this type of analysis. The tool can also save money for companies trying to find the best way to comply with a regulation, or understand water risk in a drought-prone state like California.

Eventually, the nonprofit envisions that anyone could use the tool to make decisions in real-time. For now, the tool is proprietary rather than open-source, and the nonprofit is planning to spin off a new business–a certified B Corp–to help deploy it at a larger scale, and faster.

“This is a solvable problem,” says Whitworth. “And we’re going to solve it.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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