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UMBC and Partners Receive $5 million Grant to Study Impacts of Urban Development on Water Sustainability and Regional Climate

Anthony Lane
Communications Manager:
Science, Technology and Environment
(410) 455-5793

A multi-institution team led by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) has received a $5 million water sustainability grant from the National Science Foundation— one of only three awarded nationally in that grant category — to develop a model of urban development sophisticated enough to answer crucial questions about water quality and supply.

What controls the way cities and suburbs develop, how do those development patterns affect present and future climate patterns, and how is all of this linked to the water cycle and water quality?

“Development puts stress on regional water supplies and aquatic ecosystems, and there are lots of questions about how we can better manage those stresses,” said Claire Welty, a UMBC professor who is principal investigator on the grant. “Those questions become even more urgent when we consider the uncertainties associated with climate change. Our team brings together hydrologists, social scientists and ecologists to find answers by analyzing the social, regulatory and economic factors that shape development, and with it the flow of water in the urban landscape.”

Urban development changes water flow in both obvious and subtle ways. Rainwater hitting parking lots, roads, rooftops and compacted soils is quickly shed as runoff, often carrying salt and nitrogen compounds into nearby waterways. Bridges, channels and culverts alter streams and rivers, while wells draw down aquifers and urban water systems shift water upstream or between watersheds. Urban landscapes also influence atmospheric processes, including patterns of evaporation and rainfall, in ways that scientists are just beginning to understand.

Welty, a professor in UMBC’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education (CUERE), said investigators will focus on understanding these and other factors in the context of land-use decisions and regional climate variability.

By documenting processes in the Baltimore region that have led to land conversion from farms and forests to urban and suburban uses, they aim to predict how future changes will affect water and nutrient flows, creating a model that policymakers can use to gauge the impact of various decisions and regulations.

The grant will be shared by 13 investigators at UMBC, the University of Maryland College Park, Pennsylvania State University, Princeton University, Ohio State University, the University of Rhode Island, the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, US Geological Survey and USDA Forest Service.

About $1.5 million of the five-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Water Sustainability and Climate program will go to UMBC.

The research will build on 12 years of hydrological, chemical and socioeconomic data from the NSF-supported Baltimore Ecosystem Study, which is hosted at UMBC by CUERE.

In addition to managing the project, Welty and the UMBC team will work on modeling groundwater/surface water flows and nutrient transport. UMBC co-principal investigators include Andrew Miller, an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Systems and Michael McGuire, geospatial data services manager and assistant research scientist at CUERE.

Miller said a multidisciplinary approach that includes the natural sciences, engineering and social sciences is crucial to understanding the complex relationships between climate, water, ecosystem processes and the built environment in an increasingly urbanized world.

Posted: November 10, 2010, 12:00 PM