By Britt Dean
As scientists, how do we take what we know and communicate it to the people who need it? This question is at the forefront of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) mission and the mind of Dr. Dale Manty, the Agency’s Sustainability Research Coordinator. “There is a lot out there to measure, and as scientists we know a lot. But if people don’t care about it, what is the point?” says Manty, who spoke recently as part of the Visiting Scholar Seminar Series co-sponsored by Virginia Sea Grant, VIMS, and the William & Mary Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy.
One current challenge at the EPA is finding new ways of translating scientific information so that it has behavioral impacts on how society functions. “We know how things should be, but moving to achieve those goals highlights the real disconnect between research and operations in much of the world we work in,” says Manty.
As an example, Manty cites the failing public policy process involving 25 municipalities with Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO) that are in violation of the Clean Water Act. Most mid-Atlantic communities with combined stormwater and sewage systems experience about a 30% overflow during storm events—usually a few times a month. This releases untreated sewage into the rivers that we drink from, fish in, and play in. Fixing this problem by upgrading sewage treatment systems would be impractical and prohibitively expensive.
“We have to rethink how we use water. This antiquated notion of water in and water out is not going to work going forward,” advises Manty, who describes how two municipalities in the Washington D.C. area have put in place an aggressive program to limit the flow of stormwater into the system. This program will pay individual homeowners up to $5,000 to put in on-lot containment of rainwater in the form of rain gardens, landscaping, and porous pavement. This is a great public policy fix, but it only occurred because a judge, frustrated with a 15-year record of violation, imposed the $3.2 million program on the municipalities. “Through a combination of infiltration to ground water and onsite reuse systems, we can significantly reduce the amount of water taken in by waste water treatment facilities in the first place.” This concept of Net Neutral Surface Runoff is promising, but implementing it involves dramatically changing incentives for the way people handle water.
Manty argues that rethinking our approaches to sustainability requires interdisciplinary approaches and collaborations between science, government, and the private sector. “One of the smartest recommendations I can make to science professionals is to get involved in local government, like planning commissions and advisory committees,” he says. “Local governments determine where roadways are built, where wetlands are developed, and in the long run how growth affects water quality and estuaries.” Most innovations in environmental policy start at the local and state level and ultimately get adopted by the Federal government.
Research and development in the Safe and Sustainable Water Resources division at EPA includes professionals from many different backgrounds, including technology and behavioral science. Cross-disciplinary projects bring together experts to learn from each other in order to enhance their individual skill sets. Projects funded by the EPA’a Sustainable Environmental Research program are required to involve communities and stakeholders not only in the distribution of the information gained, but at the front end in project planning and design. This helps ensure that the scientists and the communities understand the broad impacts of the implementation solution. After all, says Manty, “If you are going to do something about the problems, you have to make sure you capture problems that matter to people.”
Britt Dean is graduate student at Virginia Institute of Marine Science. She contributed this essay as part of her course work toward obtaining a Marine Policy Sub-Concentration.