Home PublicationsData Innovators 5 Q’s for Joe Whitworth, President of the Freshwater Trust

5 Q’s for Joe Whitworth, President of the Freshwater Trust

by Joshua New
Joe Whitworth

The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Joe Whitworth, president of the Freshwater Trust, a conservation nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon. Whitworth discussed how the environmental movement has lagged in its adoption of data-driven technologies and explained how greater reliance on quantified conservation strategies can help governments and businesses more effectively protect the environment.

Joshua New: At the Freshwater Trust and in your recent book Quantified: Redefining Conservation for the Next Economy, you are are a big proponent of data-driven conservation. Could you explain this approach, and how it differs from the environmental movement of the last several decades?

Joe Whitworth: We are stuck in Conservation 1.0, and only data and technology will move us forward into the 21st century. Most of the major advances in the environmental movement happened in the 1970s, when the Clean Water Act was passed and environmental issues such as clean water and clean air drew not only national attention, but big, bold national action. Over time, the movement’s early pace of action settled into using procedures of what I call a “Great Green Wall of No.” The movement focused only on stopping bad things from happening rather than making good things happen. The tools we built so long ago are simply outmoded by the problems of the day, and the environment pays the price for our inability to shift strategies.  

We need a quantum leap forward. And not taking that leap just simply is not an option, especially when we have all the tools we need here in the 21st century at our fingertips to make it happen.

“Quantified conservation” is about changing our approach to the environment on a fundamental level. Think about it this way: Right now, we’re not accurately tracking or measuring our environmental progress. It’s like driving a car without a dashboard. We don’t know where we’re going or how fast we will get there, and when it comes to water—and really any other environmental issue—that’s just not acceptable in this day and age.

Contrast the years of agency analysis it takes to build a map or consider environmental impacts with the reality that from the time you had breakfast to the time you had lunch today, an army of satellites circled the planet three times returning high resolution photos of current conditions.  Access to that kind of data can give us unprecedented insight into our waters so we can take specific actions to fix our problems in the shortest amount of time with the least cost. This world provides us with the data and information we need, and many sectors are using it to their advantage already. Most companies—73 percent of them—use data to increase revenue. Some 84 percent of executives use data to help them make better decisions. In the conservation world, we need to use it to our benefit to ensure our actions translate into positive outcomes for water, air, the climate, and more.  

The current approach just doesn’t work anymore. We can’t keep chipping away at this problem piece by piece, year after year. Not when the data, technology, and innovation is there to help us now.

New: President Obama highlighted the Freshwater Trust’s efforts to develop a cost-effective solution to protecting the ecosystem of the Rogue River in Oregon. Could you walk me through this solution and explain how data shaped this strategy?

Whitworth: In 2011, Medford, Oregon, faced a problem common for cities nationwide. Responsible for treating sewage from nearly 200,000 people, the city’s wastewater treatment plant discharges an average of 17 million gallons of clean but warm water to the Rogue River every day. The challenge came from the fact that the historically cold Rogue River is already warming and the water the facility is returning to the river could increase its temperature by an additional 0.18 degrees Celsius. It might not seem like a lot to humans but this increase can have an impact on the native salmon and steelhead calling the river home. Warmer rivers can slow migration and hold less oxygen, which causes eggs to incubate earlier, decreasing survival rates. To comply with the Clean Water Act, the city had to offset the impact of its warm-water discharge by roughly 300 million kilocalories per day. When the managers of the plan were weighing the options of how to offset this discharge, we came in and were able to present a natural infrastructure solution. Instead of building an expensive cooling system, we quantified the amount of potential shade that trees could produce and the amount that that shade could cool the water. Moreover, this option would save the city’s taxpayers more than $8 million.

Shade generated from new trees was quantified and expressed as credits that the city could purchase. The credits equate to kilocalories: A kilocalorie represents the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of a liter of water by 1.0 degree Celsius, and one credit equals one kilocalorie per day. To ensure planting would indeed mitigate the treatment plant’s impacts on the river, trading is done at a 2 to 1 ratio, an equivalency of 600 million kilocalories per day.

The Freshwater Trust was tasked with generating those 600 million temperature credits to offset the treatment plant’s future obligation to mitigate 300 million kilocalories per day of impact on the river.

So far, 27 acres—3.6 linear miles—of stream have been planted with native trees. We also know that these trees have more benefits for the environment than simply producing shade. They prevent erosion, create habitat, absorb pollutants and runoff before they enter the river, and sequester carbon.

This has been a really important program for us. It’s quantified conservation in action, and shows how by quantifying the value of ecosystem services, we’re able to ensure that our actions as an organization will translate into a positive, quantifiable outcomes for the river.  We know the baseline, we track the progress, and we hit the outcome—this is how we can fix rivers at scale on a tight timeline.  

New: Could you explain your partnership with Google for the Trekker program?

Whitworth: Well, if you are going to tout yourself as being innovative and data-focused, what better way to do so than work with a company like Google? The Freshwater Trust was driven by the idea of using Google’s advanced mapping camera, the Trekker, to remotely survey watersheds more effectively and efficiently. Our intent was to use its technology to verify the modeling assumptions in our remote sensing methodologies, while taking a deeper look at a key California waterway. So we took one of the Trekkers, strapped it to a pontoon boat, and took it down California’s Russian River. The Trekker snaps 15 photos every 2.5 seconds, pinpointing the location of pollution, lack of streamside vegetation and invasive species, and other bits of data. Valuable data on water temperature, levels of phosphorous, and oxygenation were also gathered in with measurements devices that trailed the boat.

The things we found on this trip weren’t all that surprising, but nonetheless, still disheartening. Back in the 1970s, riverbanks were sometimes held up by old cars to stop erosion of valuable farm fields, and this trend is apparent on the Russian River. There are also a lot of invasive plants, which crowd out important native vegetation. We gathered a significant amount of data on this trip and need to index other waterways in this way. With this information, we now know where the trouble spots are and essentially, what we have to do to fix them. The hope is that we can then leverage local experts and conservationists with the tools they will need to get more good work done in the places that need it.

New: With the Internet of Things and more data-driven approaches to conservation, surely there are opportunities to better integrate data into regulatory compliance. Is this already happening? If not, how would you like to see this happen?

Whitworth: We need to do a better job of incorporating data and innovation into the regulatory world. At The Freshwater Trust, we work with regulated entities to understand and develop compliance solutions based on quantified conservation actions. That’s how the Medford, Oregon program got started. Had we not been able to analyze, model, and calculate the amount of shade that trees provide, the city would not have been able to weigh our option and have met its Clean Water Act requirement another way, which would have likely been more expensive and not as beneficial for the ecosystem as a whole.

We work with municipalities, utilities, ports, agencies, and private businesses to offset their impacts on rivers and streams naturally, evaluate habitat and water quality conditions, and optimize conservation investments. And yes, we’d like to be doing more of that across the country.

And look, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. The Obama administration has called for greater technology integration for a while now, and recently in a memo required natural infrastructure planning to factor in quantified assessments of ecosystems, but we need to keep driving forward. The tools exist but we need to standardize their mechanics so that we can track progress anywhere in the country in real time and with great precision. It’s just a smarter way to do things.  

New: You mentioned to me that 80 percent of freshwater lakes and rivers are threatened. Using the Trekker is a great way to make headway on protecting these bodies of water, but monitoring such a huge area seems like an insurmountable task for any one organization. What kind of new technologies could make this task easier?

Whitworth: Monitoring is a huge part of ensuring that the actions we’re taking are producing the intended results, but it is time consuming. As an organization, we recognized this early on. We created an app to help us working smarter and more efficiently. It’s basically a tablet-optimized app that allows you to collect monitoring data in the field and then compile that data for long-term analysis and tracking.

But collecting the data is really only one part of the equation. Making sense of it is the key. We need the data-driven insight to ensure that the restoration action we’re taking on a river is being done at the right place so that it maximized benefits for the overall watershed. For that, we use a tool we developed called BasinScout. It’s a watershed-level geospatial diagnostic tool that allows for remote surveying of large landscapes and watersheds to prioritize restoration sites. These tools are part of our StreamBank family of technology, with which we will help create a digital portrayal of our environment in real time and more precisely source, qualify, implement, certify, and track results over time.

With tools like these, satellite data, good modeling, and more, we are accelerating the pace and scale of restoration work. It will lead to smarter spending of public dollars. It will lead to the proper design of environmental markets that generate not only economic gains, but deliver real ecosystem resilience. It will lead to a massive value chain of professionals, businesses, and learning. It’s just time that the world has these things. In fact, given that every single person on the planet relies on freshwater, this change is behind schedule, but fortunately it’s picking up speed pretty quickly.  

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