A web-based, collaborative planning tool to explore the role of communities and conservation practices for coping with climate change in watersheds

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Wednesday, 5 February 2014
Hall C3 (The Georgia World Congress Center )
Meghna Babbar-Sebens, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR; and S. Mukhopadhyay

Changing precipitation and temperature patterns are expected to worsen the impacts of degraded hydrology in most watersheds that have already been altered due to human activities such as deforestation, artificial agricultural drainage systems, urbanization, and residential development, etc. Recently there has been an increased interest and effort by researchers, landscape planners, and water managers to mitigate the impacts of climatic extremes in developed watersheds by restoring some of the multiple ecosystem services in watersheds that were, in the past, naturally provided by various landscape features in river basins and watersheds worldwide. For example, to help mitigate the effects of increased flooding, the restoration of degraded upland and downstream storage capacities of watersheds has been proposed: storing the excess floodwater on the land during high precipitation events, rather than moving it rapidly off the land, could significantly reduce the amount of flood damages incurred further downstream, mitigate water quality impacts, and improve wildlife habitat. However, successful restoration of hydrology will require obtaining a thorough understanding of the people and ecological processes that are unique to the watershed system, and then using this understanding in the design of appropriate management strategies for restoring/creating upland storage systems. Hence, planning approaches are needed that can integrate explicit community participation of diverse stakeholder groups at all stages of the decision process, in order to include diverse community objectives and local information.

In this research we investigated the potential of web-based information technologies to reach out to larger stakeholder communities and involve them in policy making and planning efforts. While the internet has been used in the past to support education and communication endeavors, we have developed a novel, web-based, interactive planning tool that involves the community in using science-based methods for the design of potential conservation practices on their landscape, and thereby, reducing undesirable impacts of extreme hydroclimatic events. The tool, Watershed REstoration using Spatio-Temporal Optimization of Resources (WRESTORE), uses a democratic voting process coupled with visualization interfaces, computational simulation and optimization models, and user modeling techniques to support a human-centered design approach. The voting process is incorporated into the learning and search process of optimization algorithms, as the algorithm tries to generate better alternatives that are expected to satisfy the user's voting criteria determined by the voting pattern of the user. The tool can be used to engage diverse watershed stakeholders, water managers, and landowners via the internet, thereby improving opportunities for outreach and collaborations across the natural and built environments. Users are able to (a) design spatio-temporal implementation of multiple types of conservation practices (e.g., wetlands, filter strips, grassed waterways, crop rotation, no-till, strip cropping, and cover crops) at their field-scale catchment and at the entire watershed scale, (b) examine impacts (e.g., peak flows, water quality, economic costs, etc.) and limitations of their decisions on their neighboring catchments and on the entire watershed, (c) compare alternatives generated by interactive optimization algorithms via a cost-benefit analysis, (d) vote on their “favorite” designs based on their preferences and constraints, and (e) propose their “favorite” alternatives to policy makers and other stakeholders.

This human-centered design approach, which is reinforced by use of Web 2.0 technologies, has the potential to enable policy makers to connect to a larger community of stakeholders and directly engage them in environmental stewardship efforts. Additionally, the design framework can be used by watershed groups to plug-in their own hydrologic models, climate observations and forecasts, and various other simulation models unique to their watersheds. In this presentation, we will demonstrate the effectiveness of WRESTORE for designing alternatives of conservation practices in a HUC-11 Midwestern watershed, results of various collaborative experiments with a diverse set of users and stakeholders, and discuss potential for future developments.