About the Western Ecology Division (WED) of EPA's National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory
What We Do
The Western Ecology Division (WED) conducts innovative research on watershed ecological epidemiology and develops tools to assist stakeholders achieve sustainable and resilient watersheds. Research focuses on terrestrial, freshwater and coastal systems and how they are connected. Scientists develop tools to monitor and predict the condition of these systems and their contributions to human well-being nationwide, with a special focus on the Pacific Northwest.
WED leads innovative research and predictive modeling efforts that link environmental condition to the health and well-being of people and society. WED advances research and tools for achieving sustainable and resilient watershed and water resources. WED advances systems-based research to predict the adverse effects of chemicals and other stressors across species and biological levels of organization through the development and quantification of adverse outcomes pathways across multiple scales.
Programs and Projects Managed by the Western Ecology Division:
- WED conducts research on the identification, quantification and valuation of final ecosystem goods and services (FEGS) available in the nation, regions, and communities. A classification system, the FEGS-CS guides the development of this information and houses the information. Scientists developed a framework to economically account for the benefits provided by ecosystems. This framework, called the National Ecosystem Services Classification System, analyzes the human welfare impacts of policy-induced changes to ecosystems. It classifies the flows of the ecosystem supply and demand.
- WED leads research and technical support for the Office of Water’s National Aquatic Resource Surveys (NARS). The surveys and assessments provide answers to common questions of the public and Congress such as: Is there a problem in our Nation’s waters? How big is the problem? Is it widespread or localized? What are the biggest causes of problems? WED provides survey design and data analyses for the indicators used in the surveys. In turn, the data resulting from the surveys are used in national assessments and used as a core portion of the information available to drive WED's research on watershed epidemiology.
- WED scientists have developed two extensive catchment datasets for the conterminous U.S.: one for streams and one for Lakes. For streams, the Stream-Catchment (StreamCat) dataset is an extensive collection of landscape metrics for 2.6 million streams and associated catchments. For lakes, the Lake-Catchment (LakeCat) dataset is an extensive collection of landscape metrics for about 378 thousand lakes and associated catchments. The data are summarized both for individual stream or lake catchments and for cumulative upslope watersheds. The two datasets include both natural and human-related landscape features. The data have been used to develop national maps of aquatic condition and watershed integrity.
- Ecoregions, developed by WED scientists, are a spatial framework used for watershed ecological epidemiological research, assessment, management, and monitoring of ecosystems and their components.
- WED scientists created models, like VELMA, to help planners and communities identify best watershed management practices to control pollutant loadings to streams and estuaries. VELMA is used extensively at the state and local levels for community forest planning, urban stormwater management, and assisting states and tribes to help improve salmon habitat in working forests.
- WED scientists use a systems-level approach to study responses of terrestrial organisms at the molecular, whole-organism, and ecosystem-level scales. In addition to characterizing responses in terrestrial organisms, researchers interested in whether nanomaterial release may lead to effects on important ecosystem properties such as nutrient cycling. Terrestrial plants and soil microbial communities are critical for ecological function and human provision, and therefore much of our work focuses on important interactions among plants, microbes and ENMs. They are working to develop Adverse Outcome Pathway (AOP) models that may be helpful in both predicting effects and also grouping ENMs based on common molecular initiating events. Collectively, the results will provide important information to ensure that the use of these novel and important materials does not result in unintended consequences to ecological systems or to society.
- Estuaries are very important ecosystems for coastal communities, producing natural resources that are beneficial for local economies, public health, and recreation. In Tillamook estuary on the central Oregon coast, WED researchers are working with federal, state, and local partners to understand how nutrients affect water quality, (such as seagrass beds) and natural resources (such as shellfish, finfish, and wildlife) valued by residents and visitors.
- Efforts to control the release of nutrient pollution to air, land and water rely on accurate measurement of these releases. Keeping nitrogen in the soil and dollars in the pocket is an important resource objective for farmers in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and WED researchers are working with farmers to manage nitrogen in their fertilizer more efficiently to provide for clean and safe water. They have also helped collaborated with universities to create the Institutional N footprint to assist institutions and individuals measure their nitrogen footprint. Some of WED’s work on nitrogen and phosphorus release is available through EPA’s EnviroAtlas.
- Increasing water temperatures are threatening salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest. WED researchers are developing models to identify the locations and potential importance of cold water areas or “refuges” that can help salmon persist during periods of warm water temperature. This information is being used to help state, local and tribal managers develop habitat plans for salmon recovery.
- WED is working on methods and models to improve water quality in cities by examining how stream restoration, stream daylighting, green roofs, and other green water infrastructure for managing stormwater can help prevent erosion and reduce polluting nutrients.
- Biochar is a charcoal-like substance created by slowly burning vegetation like agricultural waste. Researchers at WED are using this substance to revitalize the land the prevent contamination in mines at Superfund sites in Oregon. By mixing biochar in soil at contaminated sites, vegetation grows better and the site can be restored.
Alan Thornhill, Director