EPA awards UConn professor an $800,000 grant for water quality research

Mirror Lake, one of the two main lakes on the UConn campus, photographed on Sept. 5, 2013. (File Photo/The Daily Campus)

Mirror Lake, one of the two main lakes on the UConn campus, photographed on Sept. 5, 2013. (File Photo/The Daily Campus)

The United States Environmental Protection Agency awarded University of Connecticut professor Dr. Stephen Swallow a nearly $800,000 grant to study the economic and environmental effects of water quality change.

“We are very pleased about the award,” UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said.

Swallow, a professor of agricultural and resource economics in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, said the project the grant is funding will be a collaboration between his department and the UConn Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering.

“Our interest in the program was initiated by Tim Vadas of Civil and Environmental Engineering,” Swallow said. “His suggestion [was to] to connect with Christine Kirchhoff, also of CEE, along with then-graduate student Pengfei Liu from Agricultural and Resource Economics.”

The project will focus on the economic and environmental implications of restoring heavily degraded rivers, Swallow said. Since restoration takes time and effort, there is a cost-benefit analysis involved, as to whether it’s worth the change in water quality to expend resources on rebuilding a river.

Swallow said he will be working with other specialists in the field, though the project will be centered in the Department of Agricultural Economics, due to the economic focus of the matter.

“We... saw the need to bring in a wetland and landscape ecologist, Ashley Helton,” Swallow said. “[In order] to help describe how changes in stream restorations might affect both water quality and other ecosystem services, including habitats for both terrestrial and aquatic species and more.”

The grant itself was awarded by the EPA to six other schools, including North Carolina State University, Dartmouth College and Michigan State University, with the aim of providing funds for research into water quality and protection of water resources, according to the EPA.

Each university has a focus in the research they are conducting with the grant. UConn’s focus is water quality change’s value to the economy, which can’t necessarily be determined by dollar amounts.

A critical part of the process, Swallow said, is connecting the physical science of water quality improvement and aquatic engineering with the economic science, including the cost of improvement and how much it will impact local taxpayers.

One of the aspects of the project, he added, will include a survey asking people how valuable water quality is to them, in terms of improvement in lifestyle. While it can’t be measured in terms of price or profit, an increased quality of life in areas with restored rivers can be considered an economic value.

Benefits to ecosystems and local aquatic life can be considered a “non-market benefit,” as Swallow called it.

While UConn only received the grant in late September, Swallow said he and his team are starting the project in earnest.

“We are in the process of gathering biophysical data,” he said. “[We plan to] identify a set of 16 or so study sites across several northeastern states.”

Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.