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Measuring Sustainability

EPA scientists explore how to measure prosperity and environmental quality across the San Luis Basin, a large, rural area in south-central Colorado.

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“There is no definition of good health; however, you know if your health is getting better or worse,” says Heriberto Cabezas, Ph.D, senior science advisor to the Sustainable Technology Division in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Cabezas and colleagues Matthew Hopton, Ph.D. and Matthew Heberling, Ph.D. recently finished co-leading a collaborative pilot study designed to help scientists know whether the environmental health of a region is declining or improving. He and his research partners explored ways to measure and monitor whether a large area of south-central Colorado, San Luis Basin, has been moving toward or away from sustainability.

The ultimate goal of the research is to provide information that will help decision makers determine if a given region is in on a sustainable path.

Sustainability is a simple but powerful principle that recognizes that the natural environment is the foundation for human survival and well-being. Achieving sustainability means creating and maintaining the conditions with which people and nature can coexist in productive harmony—conditions that provide people with social, economic and other benefits—today and in future generations. Developing the science and engineering that people need to move in that direction is the “true north” of EPA’s collective research and development efforts. (See True North: Sustainability Research at EPA, SM March–April, 2011.)

As one can imagine, assessing and measuring something as broad as sustainability across a large area is a major challenge. To start, Cabezas and his co-workers sought research partners from a broad spectrum of disciplines. He assembled a multidisciplinary team with the capabilities and expertise to examine several fundamental components of an environmental system and how these components relate to key aspects of human well being, including social and economic factors.

In the San Luis Basin, the team found an ideal research site for their pilot study. The area is large enough to require complex data collection and analysis, but somewhat limited in scope with easily defined, natural hydrological boundaries and a limited population (around 50,000). Large amounts of publicly owned land simplified access for data collection and environmental monitoring. In addition, government officials from EPA’s local Region 8 (mountains and plains) and the National Park service expressed support for the study. 

Approximately the size of Massachusetts, the area contains seven counties, the Upper Rio Grande River Basin, the San Luis Valley, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

The team set out to develop a straightforward, affordable method to measure and monitor sustainability for the area. To do so, researchers set three primary objectives: (1) determine if existing historical data sets could be used to estimate sustainability at a regional scale; (2) calculate sustainability metrics through time (1980–2005); and (3) compare and contrast the results they found to determine if the region is moving toward or away from sustainability. 

Cabezas and the team utilized available environmental, economic, and social data to calculate sustainability across four different metrics (standards of measurement). Each metric provides insight into important sustainability measurements. The “ecological footprint” metric, for example, linked the total area of biologically productive land available with measurements of human consumption and waste generation. An aggregate calculation of how much “natural capital” is being used or conserved (the “Green Net Regional Product” metric) was another. The researchers used other metrics to explore aggregate measurements of energy flows and inputs (the “Emergy” metric), and the overall stability and order of natural systems (“Fisher Information and Order”).

Together, the four metrics provide information to answer basic questions central to determining sustainability:  How well can a region cope with change? How healthy is it economically? Is its energy use self-sufficient? Is its human population causing ecological damage?

An example of how using sustainability metrics can illuminate what threatens a region’s long-term sustainability is the snowpack found on the high mountains surrounding the San Luis Valley. “The existence of stored water at high elevations allows all of the geopotential energy of this water to be released in a short period of time, and in the process, it recharges the groundwater and maintains unique geological an ecological features of the valley like the Great Sand Dunes and wetlands. One consequence of this fact is that the natural and agricultural systems of the region are vulnerable to climate changes that affect the snowpack,” Cabezas and fellow co-authors point out in San Luis Basin Sustainability Metrics Project: a methodology for evaluations regional sustainability, a peer-reviewed EPA publication of the project’s findings.

When all their calculations where completed, the team found evidence that over time the area was slightly trending away from a sustainability. “The trend away from sustainability is slight, so our advice to the local community in the San Luis Valley and to EPA Region 8 was that while no immediate corrective action is warranted, plans do have to be developed to move the trend back to sustainability” explains  Cabezas.  “Action is being taken to do that exactly.  The first step is the awarding of an EPA contract for a third party to work with Region 8 and the local community in the San Luis Basin to implement the metrics and methods developed as part of the project in local decision making.  The contract is expected to be awarded early in 2012.”

Now that the major part of the pilot has concluded, Cabezas hopes that an organization will step up to continue monitoring the San Luis Basin. The team has developed user interfaces and spreadsheets to calculate the metrics and is ready to provide any technical support that the community needs. “The next part of the project is to work with the public in developing a means of implementing these ideas into public decision making,” he says.

Cabezas and the team were recognized with the 2011 Science Award from the EPA Region 8 Administrator. “This was the first place anywhere that this work has been tried, so the project was the proof of concept,” says Cabezas. Following its success, a second project using Puerto Rico as a test site is planned under the leadership of Drs. Hopton and Heberling.

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