Science for Decision Making: GIST & ASU Center for Biodiversity Outcomes

The Earth Genome isn’t just about cutting-edge data — connecting big environmental datasets and giving decision makers unprecedented access to those data.

It’s also about decision-making: marrying that environmental data with financial and other datasets and expressing it all in spatial models that give corporations and governments powerful insights as they plan for a changing planet.

Case in point: the Green Infrastructure Support Tool (GIST) — a decision-support tool that models tradeoffs for water security investment across an entire water basin.

The Earth Genome partnered with scientists at Arizona State University’s Center for Biodiversity Outcomes to develop new hydrological science for GIST. The analysis shows which wetlands restoration projects in Texas’s flood and drought-plagued Brazos River Basin could a) decrease flood crests in flooding seasons, and b) store water and provide the most additional stream-flow for water consumption in dry seasons.

Importantly, this analysis was done in direct collaboration with end-users, specifically seven companies that are members of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Our initial pilot worked deeply with Dow Chemical and their Freeport plant — its largest facility globally — that sits at the mouth of the Brazos.

And to help deliver that information, says Hongkai Gao, postdoctoral research associate with the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes and one of the lead scientists on the project, it was important to think big.

“Hydrologists and engineers already understand well the capability of wetlands to store and discharge water to a river in local scale,” says Hongkai.

“But what GIST does is allow us for the first time to understand how wetlands present future opportunities to improve the flow of a whole water system — and benefit users of that system in specific places.”

‘BREAKTHROUGH HYDROLOGY AND SPEAKING TO THE BUSINESS BOTTOM LINE’

GIST harvests data about both wetlands and conventional kinds of “grey” water security investments and models those options so a user can compare their outcomes in terms of water flow, cost-benefit, and other variables.

For Dow and the Brazos, the objective of the Arizona State science team for GIST was simple: Develop methods that show the most cost-effective green options for improving river flow, especially during the autumn, when flow rates are traditionally at their lowest.

“There’s lots out there on quality and on flood control, but the quantity piece was harder to fathom,” says John Sabo, the lead scientist on the GIST project who is also senior sustainability scientist with Arizona State’s Wrigley Institute and the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes.

“Dow’s lead hydrologist at the Freeport facility told us: ‘If you could show me a project that would improve reliability of those low flows by even one percent, that would raise my eyebrow,’” says Sabo.

“That’s the kind of target we were shooting for — something that was both breakthrough hydrology and packaged in a way that spoke to the business bottom line.”  

To hit that target, the ASU team worked directly with Dow scientists and officials to develop tailored analyses involving several novel scientific approaches.

A VERY CONVINCING WAY TO FIND THE NEEDLE IN THE HAYSTACK

One challenge: Siting new wetlands often relies on historic (and sometimes unreliable) maps to pinpoint where past wetlands were, or making educated guesses on those locations.  

So Hongkai developed the Height Above Nearest Drainage (HAND) tool, which uses topographic analysis to identify the most promising potential sites for wetlands that aren’t now marsh. Both Hongkai and Sabo say HAND is a quantum advance for pinpointing the most promising wetlands restoration sites.

“It’s a very simple algorithm for finding the needle in the haystack — and very convincing,” says Sabo.

But for HAND and GIST to give Dow full benefit, Dow had to consider restoration projects across the basin, not just on its own land.  

“We brought to them the option of thinking about other sites beyond their fence line — in the upper Brazos basin and the mid-basin as well as lower in the basin,” Sabo says.

“The analysis shows clearly that there are positions outside their fence line where they could get more bang for their buck. And I’d say they are very interested in that idea now.”

A PROCESS THAT ALLOWS CORPORATIONS TO CO-CREATE KNOWLEDGE WITH THE EARTH GENOME

Sabo stresses that the success of the GIST work came from the co-creation model fostered by The Earth Genome’s co-founder Glen Low.

“This wasn’t just consulting,” he says. “Dow and our team searched for solutions together — like scenario planning — and we both developed the science together so it speaks to solutions that the tool can actually deliver. That kind of cooperation is uncommon in science, either inside the ivory tower or outside it.”

Such collaboration is fundamental to The Earth Genome, though — which is why Sabo thinks it’s a perfect partner the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, which is focused on putting research in the hands of decision-makers.

“Earth Genome provides a number of pieces of the puzzle regarding corporations that we just don’t have at universities — namely, an understanding of how companies work and how these projects could be relevant to their bottom line,” Sabo says.

“The Earth Genome process allows corporations to co-create knowledge and have ownership of it, instead of scientists just creating a tool and asking corporations to use it,” adds Anita Hagy Ferguson, Center project manager.

“The chance to give corporations tools like GIST so they can make better decisions about their water use is a great fit for the Center, because water is essential to biodiversity.”