Potential project partners:
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Maine Dept. of Environmental Protection, local agency employees, elected officials, environmental consultants, environmental advocacy group members, business and industry representatives, and environmental attorneys
This project is a collaboration among legal experts (Owen), watershed scientists (Cronan, Simon, Vaux) social scientists (Lindenfeld, Silka, Kartez), engineers (Jain), and economists (Colgan). We will begin identifying the key legal, social, economic and biophysical linkages that influence stream health in the face of urbanization. The team also will both assess and actively develop methods for translating this understanding into actions that prevent or reverse stream degradation. Our overarching goal is to provide knowledge to support more sustainable management of watersheds in present and future urbanized areas. Urban water quality challenges also necessitate interdisciplinary research—protecting and restoring water quality without an integrated understanding of watershed ecology, land use planning, law, economics, and community perceptions probably will not be possible—and our other overarching goal therefore is to promote improved interdisciplinary communication and research.
The influence of urbanization on streams is well documented, with stream impairment resulting from a diverse set of physical and chemical drivers including hydrology, chemical and nutrient pollution, thermal stress (reviewed in NRC 2008; Center for Watershed Protection 2003; Paul and Meyer 2001). These physical and chemical drivers are emergent properties of social and economic processes that are in turn influenced by ecosystem processes, resulting in a complex set of linkages among social and ecological factors (Grimm et al. 2000). Maine provides a unique setting in which to address these complex systems because, unlike much of the eastern United States, Maine retains large portions of its landscape in relatively pristine condition. There is, however, substantial urbanization in some areas, and this process is accelerating, with consequences for stream integrity (e.g. Morse et al. 2003; Woodcock and Huryn 2007). The result is a landscape that provides useful gradients in urbanization intensity and pattern. These gradients can be used to identify mechanistic linkages among the social and ecological processes that are key to preventing environmental damage and, ultimately, maintaining the quality of life that is a hallmark of Maine (Brookings Institution 2006).
While the adverse relationship between urbanization and stream integrity is well known, academic researchers and policymakers are generally unsure about the proper methods for translating that knowledge into protective or restorative action. Legal scholars widely view existing legal mechanisms as cumbersome or inadequate (NRC 2008; Wagner 2005), and regulatory agency staff generally concur that the existing system could be substantially improved. Existing law does establish requirements, and those requirements may mandate significant investments in urban stream restoration. But the effectiveness with which these requirements address the social and ecological processes that drive system degradation is not well understood. Here, also, Maine provides an interesting research setting. In recent years, advocacy groups, local governments, state regulators, and private entities have worked—sometimes collaboratively and sometimes adversarially—to develop new approaches to urban watershed restoration. These efforts provide useful case studies, and also illustrate potential first steps toward a legal/policy regime that attempts to restore watersheds by better managing landscapes.