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A Multi Criteria Decision Tool for the Assessment and Planning of Watershed Management Practices


This project aims to develop and disseminate an innovative web technology- called eRAMS- that enhances decision makers' capacity to target conservation practices for sediment, nutrient and pesticide control. The eRAMS technology will be designed such that it can explicitly incorporate socioeconomic and environmental factors in the targeting process. Focusing on the nexus of technical and institutional barriers in adoption of targeting strategies, we will establish the versatility of the proposed approach in comparison with current policy instruments for implementation of BMPs, particularly with the field-scale scoring system used in the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). <P>This project takes technology transfer to a whole new level, because extension of the tool does not require installation of any specialized software by end-users. The development of eRAMS is well in line with the long term vision of federal agencies that develop tools and capacities for conservation planning. Thus, as new data become available and the scientific basis of models (e.g., SWAT and APEX) improves, so does our technology.<P> We envision that eRAMS will benefit watershed stakeholders that are involved with the planning and implementation of conservation systems at multiple levels. First, eRAMS will allow collection and cataloging the location and attributes of conservation practices at no cost. Availability of high resolution satellite images in the background will facilitate identification of field boundaries and mapping of practice locations. The tool will be compatible with current databases, and thus, can be used seamlessly upon its transfer to watershed stakeholders.<P> Second, planners will benefit from vast data resources and models that are currently accessible to the research community. The merely technical aspects of modeling such as watershed delineation and input creation will be automated. Thus, planners can easily create a field model (e.g., APEX) and a watershed model (e.g., SWAT) for their area of interest on the internet, and perform scenario analysis for conservation planning. <P>Further, the visualization component of the tool will enable planners to engage producers in the assessment of costs and conservation benefits of their management decisions. Finally, the planning component of our technology can be used to answer questions such as: what combination of types and locations of practices will provide the most conservation benefits at the field level or in the watershed of interest for a specified budget What would be the cost of attaining water quality standards for a given watershed Is it feasible to attain certain water quality targets (e.g., TMDLs) for a specified budget

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Non-Technical Summary: This integrated study aims to develop and disseminate an innovative open-source web technology, called eRAMS, that enhances decision makers' capacity to target conservation practices for sediment, nutrient and pesticide control. The development of eRAMS will focus on the nexus of technical and institutional barriers in adoption of targeting strategies. Technical barriers will be addressed by automating the multi criteria targeting process on the internet. The eRAMS technology will automate spatial overlay of soil, land use, and other data layers in order to create input files for the field-scale APEX and the watershed-scale SWAT models. The technology will also include a system optimization module that fully explores the tradeoffs between conflicting socioeconomic and environmental criteria at the watershed scale, but more importantly, can unambiguously identify the range of solutions that are most consistent with stakeholders' priorities. This project takes technology transfer to a whole new level, because extension of the targeting tool does not require installation of any specialized hardware and software by end-users. Thus, watershed planners will benefit from vast data resources and models that are currently accessible to the research community, and will be empowered to assess the costs and conservation benefits of alternative management scenarios. To foster broad participation, the web technology will be developed under the supervision of an advisory group from agencies that are most likely to use the tool for the assessment and planning of conservation systems and making management decisions. In addition, farmers and landowners will be included in this group since decisions are implemented at a landowner and farm level. Although our efforts will be initially focused in the South Platte River Basin in Colorado, the applicability of the technology will be spatially corroborated in two other watersheds within the U.S. with significantly different eco-hydrologic regimes. We will address institutional barriers to adoption of new technologies by coordinating our efforts with federal agencies that are responsible for building capacities for conservation planning. The eRAMS tool and its components will be designed in line with the data and modeling infrastructure of these institutions, who have pledged their support and commitment to the successful completion of this project. Moreover, the versatility of the proposed targeting approach will be weighed against current policy instruments (e.g., cost-sharing) for prioritization of conservation practices. We will use multiple vehicles to conduct extension and outreach of our findings to targeted groups including the National Integrated Water Quality Project Committee for Shared Leadership - Water Quality, USDA, USEPA, and watershed groups. Educational and outreach materials will be developed and used in two courses at CSU and national workshops. <P> Approach: This project will build upon the existing eRAMS prototype that operates on a web platform and requires no hardware and software installation. Currently, eRAMS supports collection and organization of information about the landscape position, type and timing of existing BMPs without demanding requirements of tools such as desktop GIS; assessing the cost and environmental benefits of a suite of BMPs using SWAT; and performing scenario analysis and visualizing outputs at various spatiotemporal scales. One important but largely overlooked issue with the use of models is that conservation systems are prescribed based on the computational units of the model, which do not necessarily overlap with actual field boundaries. For example, SWAT, one of the most popular watershed models for evaluation of conservation practices around the world, operates on the basis of hydrologic response units (HRUs) that do not represent a specific field in the watershed. The eRAMS technology is equipped with high resolution seamless aerial photos and Google Maps, which enables users to digitize the location of practices based on the actual field boundaries. Currently, the tool does not have the capacity to automatically delineate the watershed boundary and create modeling inputs. Thus, users will need to upload their own models into the system. Moreover, our multi criteria optimization engine has not been fully liked with eRAMS. The proposed project will automate the entire procedure. The driving principles in the design of eRAMS are: (1) development of an assessment and planning technology that hinges on the needs of watershed stakeholders; (2) no particular hardware, software and training requirements; and (3) compatibility with existing databases. All components of eRAMS will be designed as web modules and will be freely available to the public. At the completion of this project, users will be able to zoom in to a region, draw a polygon around the area of interest, and upload their data. Further, users will be able to digitize field boundaries and assign a practice or a set of practices for that particular feature. The technology will automatically fetch heterogeneous data (e.g., soils, land use, and elevation) from NRCS Data Gateway, and will create inputs for the SWAT and APEX models for a baseline scenario with no conservation plan and a scenario with a plan in place. The visualization capacities of the tool will facilitate a thorough assessment of the two scenarios, and will reveal the estimated costs and environmental benefits of practices. Users will be able to apply the tool for planning practices via scenario analysis or using the multi criteria optimization and decision tool in eRAMS. The eRAMS technology will be developed in close collaboration with the USDA-ARS and NRCS to enhance the likelihood of its success. Also, our collaborative efforts will align the technology with the long-term institutional vision of these agencies. Webinars and Promotional CDs, publications, reports, newsletters, and a new course curriculum will be developed to transfer the knowledge gained from this project to the next generation of watershed managers and engineers.

Arabi, Mazdak
Colorado State University
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