October 22, 2004

NSF grant funds creation of 'virtual watershed'

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- After teaching a computer to "think" like farmers do, researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale are creating an easy-to-use "virtual watershed" that will show the shifting balance between costs and benefits, both for the environment and for the "farmers," as they use their land in different ways.

"By going back through time and seeing what history has shown us, we might be able to say why the current landscape looks like it does, what path we took to get to where we are today, and what path we could have taken to a better economic and environmental outcome," said civil engineer John W. Nicklow, one of four SIUC researchers involved in the three-year project.

"We believe we will find that in most watersheds, the level of ecosystem services (things like the ability to reduce greenhouse gases, increase habitat and keep farm chemicals out of rivers and streams) could be significantly higher than it is, with little or no reduction in farm income."

Based on Southern Illinois' Big Creek watershed, the project is supported by a $450,000 National Science Foundation grant under its bio-complexity in the environment section. The watershed, which runs through Union and Pulaski counties, is part of the Cache River basin. SIUC agribusiness economists Jeffrey Beaulieu and Steven E. Kraft and SIUC geographer Christopher L. Lant, all of whom have been studying the area for more than a decade, along with geographers George Malanson from the University of Iowa and Raja Sengupta from McGill University in Montreal, round out the research team.

The current project grew out of the earlier work in Big Creek.

"In one study involving reducing the impact of erosion on rivers and streams, we found that government conservation incentives like the Conservation Reserve Program could greatly reduce sediment loads with no loss in income to farmers," Nicklow said.

"You might think that all farmers would be most interested in maximizing their profit, but it turns out there are other, additional reasons for the farmers' decisions about what they chose to do. Sometimes it was what the neighbors did, sometimes it was a personal issue, sometimes it was just that farmers don't want to be told what to do -- even if they could significantly increase their profits and not hurt their land.

"For farmers, there might be a tradeoff between economic and environmental objectives. What we need to find is the combination -- the 'improvement space' -- where they do the best they can with regard to both."

To do that, the researchers have rounded up data about the behavior of farmers over time and set up a computer model that "learned" those sets of actions. They are teaming this model with environmental simulation software and a geographic information system to create their virtual watershed -- a cyberplace where they can tinker with laws and policies, economics, environmental processes, social factors, land use and such to see how changes to the parts change the whole.

"A policy maker could sit down with this and understand the effects of policy decisions on the ground," Nicklow said.

"What variables need to change to get land uses closer to the optimum? Should it be a change in the policy or something more basic -- maybe looking at different crop production practices, for example. By looking at the variables together, we might get a feeling for how to improve the production of ecosystem services with little or no loss of profits."

When they finish, the researchers plan to open their watershed to anybody who can get on the Internet or use a CD. It won't take any special training to run.

"All the technical parts will be done and in the background -- users won't have to see any of it," Nicklow said.

Right now the computational processes take up to three days.

"By using high-speed computers and artificial neural networks, we hope to get that down to seconds," Nicklow said. "Nobody -- especially a policy maker -- will get on the Internet and wait three days for a result."

While policy makers are the most obvious targets for this new tool, Nicklow said he would like to see it used in high schools and colleges.

"This could help students see that we all live in a particular watershed and everything we do has an impact," he said. "Everything is interconnected in some way."

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.