Check the Price Tag on Environmental Projects

Geographer looks for cost-effective ways to improve water quality

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Wanhong Yang

Wanhong Yang

Conservation, protecting the environment and “going green” are the buzzwords of the day ─ and important causes for the agricultural community. The price tag for environmental solutions, however, can’t be ignored.

“We all invest money in these environmental measures through our tax dollars,” says Prof. Wanhong Yang, Geography. “The funds are always limited, so we need to prioritize to maximize the benefits.”

What does it take to figure out the best use of those environmental dollars? “A lot of data and some advanced computing tools,” says Yang.

Add to that Yang’s expertise in geography, economics and hydrology, and a group of graduate students he describes as “really excited about these issues,” and the result is an innovative way of analyzing the complex factors involved in an environmental problem.

One aspect of Yang’s research examines the riparian buffer ─ a strip of trees and plants along the banks of a river or creek that serve as a buffer between the farmer’s field and the water. These strips are important because they reduce the pollutants and sediments that get into the water from the fields.

“There is a cost to the farmer to create these riparian buffers,” explains Yang. “This land can’t be used for farming. These buffers also incur other costs, such as vegetation planting and maintenance. So there are government programs to pay farmers to retire these pieces of land.”

But not all land is worth the same amount. “One farmer might grow $100 worth of crops on a piece of land, while on another strip of land you can grow $150 worth. So that land is more valuable,” he says. “You also have to look at the effectiveness of the buffer ─ it may stop more pollutants in one area than in another.”

Yang has completed a study in the Canagagique Creek watershed in Ontario’s Grand River Basin and has shown that a program funding riparian buffers can be the most cost-effective when this information is used to prioritize locations for the buffer strips, and also when the width of the buffer strip is allowed to vary by location.

Other research he is currently involved in looks at conservation of wetlands. “You have a different set of costs and benefits when you are dealing with wetlands,” Yang says. He developed an innovative computer model of wetlands and used it to predict the benefits in terms of clean water for rehabilitating wetlands in the Broughton’s Creek watershed in Manitoba.

“I start from a small area and then expand the model to a larger area,” says Yang, explaining how he replicates his work to encompass increasing amounts of data. “Sometimes I’m examining just one aspect, and then I add in more factors. So I keep expanding our understanding in all directions.

“It’s also important that my research is not just scientifically innovative, but that it also has practical uses.”

The heart of the picture, says Yang is that “you and I and everyone else are paying for these programs. We should be aware of where our money is going, and we should want it to be used in the most cost-effective way.”

He also urges people to become involved in conservation and environmental causes.