February 21, 2017; Fast Company, “Co.Exist”
A sewage treatment plant is sending warm water downstream into Oregon’s Rogue River, known for its salmon and steelhead, which are cold-water fish. What would best solve the problem: building a costly cooling tower, or planting trees? It turns out that the trees cooled just as well as the tower would have, and at a savings.
Freshwater Trust, a nonprofit focused on river ecosystems, believes the next generation of conservation will be “quantified conservation.” Freshwater Trust created a data analysis tool that identified specific properties along the river where planted trees could have the most impact. The data tool, known as BasinScout, creates maps for river restoration projects based on specific criteria: plant growth next to the water, amount of sunlight, land slope, soil type, and water usage on nearby farms. After analysis, the owners of the land with the highest priority locations were paid to plant trees.
Joe Whitworth, Freshwater Trust’s president, believes that “environmentalism as it’s been practiced has kind of hit a wall.” Technology has fundamentally altered how environmental nonprofits can do their work. Environmentalists are able to track problems differently and find different solutions. One example cited is how dead zones in river ecosystems can now be studied using data from remote sensing, which allows for more specific solutions.
In the Rogue River story, big data analysis brought the power to analyze 3 million acres and discover the 100 specific acres that offered the best chance to shape the water temperature. The bright spot for the future is the ability to produce defined solutions while spending less money. Though the data tool used in the Rogue River analysis is proprietary and not open to others, Freshwater Trust is looking to develop tools to help anyone make similar decisions in real-time.—Jeanne Allen