After 20 years, Baltimore Ecosystem Study federal funding ramps down

For two decades, the Baltimore Ecosystem Study has collected, analyzed and provided long-term data on surface water and groundwater in the Baltimore region, measuring variables ranging from temperature to the amount of sediment or salt in a stream.

The long-term study, based out of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, enables scientists to monitor and understand years-long climate and other ecological trends. But the program’s federal funding is being phased out and UMBC may be looking for private funding to continue the work.

The project was recently awarded about $1.1 million by the National Science Foundation, which has funded the study for 20 years. But the latest round of funding is meant to ramp down the project and allow the long-term study to process and analyze final samples, ensure that data are available for study “in perpetuity,” synthesize the data, prepare publications, develop a static website to describe the project and allow for the decommissioning of long-term field sites in the region, according to the NSF. The continued collection of new data will not be allowed, however.

“The researchers are committed to continuing their work, so they’re going to find a way,” said Sarah Hansen, a spokeswoman for the natural sciences at UMBC. The question, she said, would be what that funding may look like.

Officials with the Baltimore Ecosystem Study said the funding will “provide us an opportunity to phase out” some project activities and continue others.

Karl Steiner, vice president of research at UMBC, said the university was “not pleased” with the NSF development, but accepted it — and was now looking to private foundations for funding. Steiner said he was not ready to share any specific sources of funding the university was pursuing.

"We’ve been very actively going out and sharing the impact of the loss of funding and the long-term benefit that we have out of this program,” Steiner said.

Robert Margetta, a spokesman for the National Science Foundation, said in a statement that the NSF cannot comment on deliberations regarding specific grant proposals, citing the U.S. Privacy Act, which sets rules for the dissemination of information that could be personally identifiable.

That data, experts explained, can be used to measure how effective stream restoration projects are or to model how future development could affect water flow in the region. The study is one of only two long-term urban watershed studies in the United States; the other is in Phoenix, Ariz.

The project in Arizona is also primarily funded through grants from the NSF, said Mark Watkins, project manager of the study. He said the project has been federally funded through 2022.

Because the data span 20 years and because data points are collected so frequently, it’s easier for researchers to detect trends, such as climate change, than it would be from smaller studies that do not last as long or collect as much data.

“The typical three-year [National Science Foundation] grant, you collect some data, the students get their degree, and it’s just so small in terms of the big picture,” said Claire Welty, director of UMBC’s Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education. “The long-term aspects, I think, are just absolutely phenomenal.”

Local impact

Besides the academic benefits for graduate students writing dissertations and professors publishing work in academic journals, the study allows local policymakers and officials to have access to well-researched reports and to data sets that can help drive decision-making.

“One of the big drivers of policy in this region is cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay,” Welty said.

She discussed stream restoration projects as an example of a practice that can benefit from having 20 years’ worth of data. If a stream is being monitored by the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, then there is already a collection of data that show what that stream’s baseline conditions. Once stream restoration work is complete, the study can continue monitoring the stream to see how conditions and water quality change.

“If we’re monitoring before and after, we can make statements about [the efficacy of restoration work],” Welty said.

The findings of the ecosystem study have been used by Maryland agencies. UMBC says both the Maryland Department of the Environment and Department of Natural Resources have attended quarterly ecosystem study meetings and referenced research that’s been published through it.

Annie Hairston-Strang, associate director of the Maryland Forest Service, which operates under DNR, said that for the past 10 years or so, she has attended quarterly meetings and shared the results of Baltimore Ecosystem Study research with others in her professional and governmental networks.

The Baltimore Ecosystem Study has been useful in her department’s efforts to figure out the best management practices for improving local watersheds, she said.

Welty said the ecosystem study has plenty of practical implications — from understanding how restoration projects work to modeling what future development could mean for different watersheds, and even measuring how much road salt travels from the road to streams and rivers.

“We’re not out there measuring for the sake of measuring,” Welty said.

cboteler@baltsun.com

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