Article from In the Loop:


A new land-use modeling tool being developed by associate professor of Natural Resources Conservation Timothy Randhir and doctoral candidate Deborah Shriver could help Western Massachusetts communities plan new buildings, streets and other improvements while protecting drinking water quality, loss of biodiversity and damaged wildlife habitat.

In recent publications, Randhir and Shriver report that they are using data on such inputs as sediment load, high priority habitat, stream flow, drainage patterns, soil types and vegetation cover, for example, to create a Watershed Impairment Index that links quantified data with a prioritization process and runs different scenarios for different options.

This emerging research area provides decision support for sustainable use of resources, especially water, they say. “The goal is to reach a balance that both protects the watershed but allows reasonable development to take place,” Randhir said, because “by only focusing on urban development which seems to be a natural tendency among many local political leaders for understandable reasons we essentially lose the other values.”

At present, it’s difficult for towns to know how bad the drawbacks to a particular development decision might be, and when a road or parking lot permit, for example, might tip the balance in the wrong direction and overload the watershed. These and other challenges led Randhir and Shriver to design the computer-based land-use planning tool that models different scenarios and interaction of the “big three” variables: habitat protection, water quality and the built environment.

As they point out, most members of local zoning, conservation and planning commissions are volunteers with no special training in how to do the job. Even with the best of intentions, they can be hard pressed to weigh all the tradeoffs and successfully manage competing interests. Further, their authority ends with town boundary, when what’s at stake in Western Massachusetts is the health of a massive watershed 40 miles wide and covering 25 or 30 towns from the Berkshires to the Quabbin, Randhir said. He and Shriver hope soon to introduce their new index to local planning commissions for pilot testing.

July 8, 2009.