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Toward Sustainability: Building a Better Understanding of Ecosystem Services

EPA researchers and partners are conducting a major study of the Tampa Bay estuary and its surrounding wetlands to quantify how natural ecosystems support human welfare.


If a major credit card company were to highlight the benefits of Tampa Bay’s natural ecosystems in one of its now-famous television commercials, it might feature an opening shot of a retired couple decked out in waders, sun hats, and khaki vests. As they lift binoculars to their eyes to spy on a squadron of pelicans gliding over flat, golden-hued open water, an announcer would deadpan: “Brand new, eight by forty binoculars for a day of adding to your life list: seventy-four dollars.” Images of a mom straining to lift a fishing rod to land a tarpon while her excited family cheers her on: “Charter boat and crew for a day of fun on the water: six hundred and fifty dollars.”

The kicker for such a commercial would feature a fast-paced series of images showing a diversity of wildlife and wetlands, people enjoying the great outdoors, and a dramatic thunderstorm sending cascades of runoff flowing through wetlands toward the Bay, all interspersed with scenes of everyday life. The voiceover: “Having healthy, functioning wetlands and other Tampa Bay region ecosystems supporting a vibrant economy, public well being, and a sustainable future: priceless.”

But while many do consider natural ecosystems and the benefits they provide to be priceless when they stop to recognize them, more often than not these benefits are so abundant and free-flowing that, paradoxically, they are easy to overlook. What’s worse, because they are difficult to quantify, such benefits are often left out or undervalued in risk assessments and other analysis that decision makers use to set environmental policies.

The end result, according to the World Resources Institute Exit EPA Disclaimer, is that our current way of life is unsustainable.

EPA scientists have embarked on a research program to help change that. They are developing a better scientific understanding of the benefits people derive from nature.

The research is advancing the science of sustainability by focusing on the aspects of the natural environment that form the foundation of our own ecology, economy, and overall well-being.  These aspects of ecosystems that humans derive benefits from are what biologists and others refer to as ecosystem services—such as flood control, fertile soils, biological diversity, and the natural cycles that cleanse our air and water.

Tampa Bay, home to Florida’s largest open-water estuary and a large and growing urban center, is the focus of one such study. EPA scientists Dr. Marc Russell and Dr. Janet Nestlerode are helping lead a broad coalition of researchers and stakeholders in a comprehensive study to identify and assess the ecosystem services provided by the bay and surrounding region.

“We and our partners are working to estimate the ecosystem services that Tampa Bay estuary and other ecosystems provide on a broad scale,” says Russell.

One example: usable water. Human activities can produce water pollutants such as nitrogen. Excess nitrogen reaching water bodies can lead to decreased water clarity, algal blooms, sea-grass death, and reduced fish populations.  But natural areas can act as a kind of natural filter. As water flows through wetlands, forests, and other natural areas within a watershed, levels of nitrogen and some other pollutants decrease.  The cleaner water produced is useable and valued by people—for drinking, farming, and recreational activities. 

Dr. Marc Russell and Dr. Janet Nestlerode

EPA scientists Dr. Marc Russell (left) and Dr. Janet Nestlerode are studying the Tampa Bay ecosystem.

If too much of a watershed’s natural areas are replaced with developed areas (housing complexes, parking lots, etc.), communities are faced with the need to build water treatment facilities to maintain useable water, a costly proposition. The maintenance of useable water is just one of many examples of what ecosystems do for us. 

And useable water is just one of many examples. “The extensive fieldwork and analysis conducted will give us the information we need to build models that we can then use to predict the functionality of natural habitats such as wetlands, quantifying the role they play in things such as removing nitrogen, providing habitat, storing carbon, and preventing floods. All of the results can then be incorporated into more dynamic models as we proceed,” explains Russell.

The scientists are partnering with local governments, other research entities, planning organizations, and citizen and business groups to identify and assess the values a productive ecosystem provides to the community. “We consider everyone who lives, works, or benefits from the Tampa Bay region ecosystem to be stakeholders,” says Nestlerode.

The project’s current stage involves intensive fieldwork to gather baseline information and begin to build a database collected from environmental observation and monitoring that will continue to grow over the long term.   A stakeholder and collaborator meeting is scheduled for May 3 to discuss project progress, urban forest assessments, model development, phase two website development, and how upcoming research efforts can be refined to best meet the Tampa Bay region’s needs.

“I remind myself of the big picture when I’m out in the field conducting wetland surveys while also trying not to get eaten by alligators and mosquitoes,” says Nestlerode, who, along with other project scientists is conducting fieldwork and research investigating the functionality of wetlands in urban, agriculture, and natural watersheds and the differences between ecologically younger habitats such as restored salt marshes and older, more established mangrove stands. “Doing this kind of work gives us insight into how long it takes a disturbed or restored ecosystem to recover so that the diversity of habitats across the landscape is providing a full suite of services. It gives us the opportunity to address return-on-investment-type of questions about the environment.”

Because of the comprehensive nature of the study, a diverse group of experts are working together, including ecologists, biologists, wetland experts, geographers, modelers, and environmental economists.

All those experts will help paint a more complete picture of Tampa Bay that decision makers can use when establishing development and environmental plans. “Our science will help stakeholders balance the costs of human-caused stresses to the landscape while sustaining valuable ecosystem services. By focusing on specific questions and real-world, on-the-ground situations we can provide information that everyone can relate to, such as how losing wetlands could require building expensive water treatment plants to maintain water quality, and how our actions might unintentionally result in diminished bird watching and fishing opportunities,” says Russell.

Ultimately, the science EPA researchers and their partners are developing will enable resource managers, planners, governments, and others to more accurately value and be conscious of the benefits we derive from “healthy” ecosystems.  This information should help decision makers lead us and future generations toward a sustainable future. Now that would truly be “priceless.”

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