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Balancing conservation with commerce

Corporations want to be green, and make green. ASU tool can help them do both.
Many places where wetlands can be restored, but only a few economically viable.
Companies can protect environment — and their bottom line — with ASU water tool.
January 22, 2016

Dow Chemical among first corporations considering ASU water tool that helps protect environment and the bottom line

Sustainability looks good for corporations these days.

Starbucks, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola all tout their contributions to combating climate change, saving wildlife and replenishing water sources.

But corporations sometimes need help becoming sustainable.

A revolutionary new tool developed at Arizona State University can help corporations apply analytics to how they use water, simultaneously helping water conservation, habitat restoration and their bottom line.

Unveiled last month in Paris, the water decision tool is in consideration to be adopted by Dow Chemical at its Texas operations on the Brazos River.

“We believe there’s not only value to doing this for nature and society, but we have a goal to recoup a billion dollars over the next decade,” said Mark Weick, director of the sustainability program office at Dow.

The Green Infrastructure Support Tool was developed by John Sabo, a professor in the School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is an academic unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. and a faculty member of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes.

“It tells Dow how to meet their water bottom line for manufacturing by creating wetlands instead of creating gray infrastructure,” Sabo said. Gray infrastructure refers to built solutions, such as dams or retention basins.

“It allows them to site places where they would gain water by restoring what might be currently farmland or something else, or maybe it’s diked and the water can’t get there,” said Sabo, who is also a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. “In a basin context, the water gets slowed down by those wetlands and then later in the year when the reliability of water is low and flows are low, the reliability is higher.

“What we’re trying to eventually do with them is to combine that green infrastructure concept with the gray that’s existing so that maybe they could store the extra water they slow down from floods.”

Dow operates a large plastics and specialty chemicals plant in Freeport, Texas, on the Brazos River. It is highly dependent on the river, the flow of which varies widely. During the huge floods that swept through parts of Texas last year, Dow reps told Sabo more water flowed past their plant in two days than they use all year.

“We’re very interested in tools that will potentially lead to projects that will improve water flow down the river,” Weick said. “This software is a great tool to evaluate how the water flows in the river.”

Some reeds and grasses grow at the edge of a river.

There are many places where wetlands can be
restored, but it isn't always economically viable.
Finding where it would be best for meeting the
bottom line is part of what the ASU water tool does.

Photo by Adrian Lynch

One example of an existing sustainable solution was the construction of a wetland beside Dow’s plant along the Gulf Coast in Seadrift, Texas. Instead of building a wastewater treatment plant, Dow restored a wetland that did the job of a treatment plant — by filtering wastewater through cleansing grasses and the like. It recouped $200 million out of an initial cost of $2 million. The wetland requires no maintenance and is far more effective than a plant.

“That shows us the kind of value of this kind of tool,” Weick said. “We want to do more projects like that. This software has the potential to be used as a screening tool to evaluate the viability of projects like that.”

The non-profit Earth Genome approached the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes and asked them to provide the science. Earth Genome’s goal is to enable key institutions to account for natural capital in decision-making. The organization connects scientists and technology providers to governments, corporations and investors.

The non-profit’s current focus is on water. It is creating decision-support tools for executives in corporate operations, supply chains and financial services, addressing questions such as, “What are the most cost-effective green infrastructure investments I can make to mitigate water-quantity and -quality issues at my facility?”

“We fancy ourselves that this will trigger a new way of thinking and mass adoption, but we don’t know yet,” said Earth Genome co-founder Glen Low. The potential impact of being adopted by massive multinational corporations like Dow is huge, Low said.

“If you could redirect private capital to the same goal, it could be an order of magnitude bigger than what conservation organizations do today,” he said. “It’s all about scale.”

Sabo said the collaboration with Earth Genome was great.

“They know business-speak, and scientists typically don’t know business-speak, so it’s been a great opportunity,” Sabo said.               

The tool puts a dollar value on restoration comparing it with gray infrastructure. For instance, there are lots of places where wetlands can be restored, but only a few are economically viable and will meet the bottom line better. Finding where it would be best to invest in green infrastructure is what the tool does. One layer in the tool shows the parcel level of ownership in the Brazos watershed.

“Likely the restoration sites will be agricultural land with poor return,” Sabo said.

“It’s not only the world-class science, it’s breaking the mold. … When you combine business with science, and you put a financial wrap on it, all of that is innovative.”
— Glen Low, co-founder of non-profit Earth Genome

Dow is in the early stage of testing the tool. It will apply the software to the Brazos and look at enhancing water management strategies.

“We’ve so far been providing user feedback,” Weick said. “The tool has the potential for some really wide applicability in solving problems.”

Seven global corporations expressed interest in the tool when it was unveiled last month at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in Paris, including Unilever, Monsanto and Indian mega conglomerate Tata.

“We built the tool for all of those companies,” Low said. “We just piloted it in the Brazos. … (Dow has) done things no one else has done. We wanted to make sure whatever we did advanced whatever they had done.”

Dow “has other places we could roll this out after we demonstrate its usefulness here,” Sabo said. “We’re working very closely with them to try to define a need that will be transportable to other basins and other companies.”

Hongkai Gao, a postdoctoral research associate, worked with Sabo and contributed the hydrological work on the tool.

Low said Earth Genome is excited about the tool’s potential.

“We’ve been super pleased working with John and Hongkai,” he said. “They’ve done a tremendous job. It’s not only the world-class science, it’s breaking the mold. We appreciate them being out on the skinny branch with us. … When you combine business with science, and you put a financial wrap on it, all of that is innovative.”

Sabo is pleased to see his work having an immediate, measurable impact on the environment.

“I like this because corporations can make things happen fast,” he said. “You know your science is going to lead to a solution fast.”

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Harvesting data: The impacts of increased urban farming

What are the effects of more urban gardens? ASU team to crunch the data.
ASU team looking at ecological, social and economic aspects of urban gardens.
High-precision agriculture offers a lot of information at a very local level.
January 22, 2016

ASU project to create physics-based model— accessible to anyone — to study the effects of establishing neighborhood gardens

What would happen if the vacant land around Phoenix were converted to urban farms? Could it bring sustainable, locally grown food closer to consumers?

Arizona State University is taking the lead on a collaborative national project to answer questions like these. Researchers in the university are developing a physics-based model utilizing weather and farming data to predict environmental, economic and socio-economic impacts of increased urban agriculture.

The community model will be public and accessible to everyone — scientists, researchers, farmers, city planners and policymakers.

Alex Mahalov, the Wilhoit Foundation Dean’s Distinguished Professor in ASU’s School of Mathematical and Statistical SciencesThe School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences is an academic unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., is the lead principal investigator of the national project.

“We want to collaborate with people in all different areas to find sustainable solutions," Mahalov said.

The interdisciplinary team from ASU, consisting of computational and climate scientists, mathematicians, statisticians, geoscientists and social scientists, will help predict the yields of crops and to study “what if” scenarios and optimize outcomes of future crops.

For example, the team will study what would happen if vacant lands around the Phoenix metropolitan area were converted to farms. The model will be able to take a future map of the city expansion and samplings based on current densities, and use that data to predict a future city scenario. Bringing food closer to consumers with less shipping means fresher, more nutritious food available at lower cost.

Alex Mahalov (left) and Stephen Shaffer

Alex Mahalov (left) and Stephen Shaffer discuss "what if" scenarios related to converting vacant lands around Phoenix into urban farms.

This is the first time ASU will be collaborating with the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) on the same national project, which involves three separate grants over five years.

Researchers plan to study four distinct geographic and climate zones: the Arizona Sun Corridor, Detroit, central California (Fresno and surrounding area) and central Florida. Local data specific to each area, such as topography, solar energy and water table, will be applied to the physics-based model.

This model is being developed for the United States, but it can be applied to other areas to help determine how best to feed the growing global population — expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, with more than 50 percent of the populace contained within cities.

Stephen Shaffer, postdoctoral scholar in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, received an additional grant for computational resources from the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Computational and Information Systems Laboratory, sponsored by the NSF.

He’ll start by looking at select winter and summer periods, comparing high-resolution observations represented at a coarser resolution, and moving on to multi-season simulations.

To crunch all the big data, Mahalov’s group will be the first at ASU to be connected to the new fast Internet 2, which will link researchers with the Computational and Information Systems Laboratory at NCAR. The initial simulations require many hours of parallel processing and will generate upwards of 80 terabytes of data.

Shaffer’s idea is to improve the atmospheric models, which currently run best at one kilometer or three kilometers of horizontal resolution.

“How do you take data you’ve observed at one meter and represent it efficiently at one kilometer? It’s these spatial aggregations that I’m writing algorithms for,” he said.

Currently land is only identified in one by one-kilometer sections as a building or vegetation. An entire city, like Phoenix, would look like it is made up of only three kinds of land. Mahalov and Shaffer came up with different methods of how the end result can be more detailed.

“Modeling is a lot like cooking because you need very good ingredients. One ingredient is data. If you have better ingredients — better data and faster computing — you get more accurate representations,” Mahalov said.

This high-precision agriculture offers a lot of information at a very local level. Every point on an individual community garden or urban farm offers data on things like the water table, slope of the land and sun exposure.  Shaffer said that can help farmers make decisions on what to grow and when, and when to buy water credits.

“On a larger scale, if we were to convert all the current vacant integrated lands in Phoenix into crops, would we be able to irrigate them for the next 80 years, or would they just last for two or three years and we’d run out of water? We can start looking at these kinds of scenarios,” said Shaffer, adding that the model they’re developing is public and open to anyone’s ideas.

In addition to the linked agricultural and urban simulations, the researchers are partnering with experts in geography and social sciences who are interested in the social and economic aspects.

“We don’t specify how crops are going to be set up. We’re going to put some amount of vegetation and some amount of water or irrigation in the model, but how it’s implemented in reality could be community gardens, for example,” Shaffer said. “This drives social aspects, with neighbors speaking to each other about how to grow crops or how to deal with pests. I have a garden in my backyard, and my neighbors come over and learn about it.”

In addition to producing food, backyard and community gardens provide other benefits, such as small-scale jobs and economic activity for people who might not have sufficient resources. And there are other positives.

“Put a chicken coop in your yard and see what happens in the neighborhood. Everyone gets interested,” Shaffer said with a chuckle. “We haven’t put chickens in the model yet.”

“Having a garden to grow some food might make you happier. Happiness cannot be underestimated,” Mahalov said.

“And turning compost is very stress-relieving,” Shaffer said.

What excites the researchers about this joint national project is not just working with USDA and NSF to create a set of modeling tools that can be used to study future development scenarios, but also the multiscale nature of it.

“It’s different than climate change, where you have global scale forcing to the finer scale. This is fine scale forcing the larger scale — your own backyard, but many people acting in similar ways,” Shaffer said.

Mahalov agrees: “It is very important that we outreach to the public. If we all do smart and sustainable things collectively, we can have a big impact.”

The co-principal investigators on the project are Billie Turner II, distinguished sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and Gilbert F. White Professor of Environment and Society in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning; Mohamed Moustaoui, senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and associate professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences; Matei Georgescu, senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning; and Carola Grebitus, senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and assistant professor of Food Industry Management at the Morrison School of Agribusiness in the W. P. Carey School of Business.