Informing the Development of the Great Lakes Region Decision Support System

Kimberly D. Robinson and Bryan C. Pijanowski

Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47906

Throughout the Great Lakes region, land use planners are tasked with making planning decisions or recommendations that have the potential to impact both the quality and quantity of groundwater and surface water resources long-term. Both temporally and spatially, land use/cover change is by far one of the most prominent drivers of environmental change (Zhang et al., 2008). Changes in land use/cover throughout landscapes over time have been linked to numerous environmental impacts such as altered atmospheric dynamics (Houghton, 2009) and aquatic ecosystems’ structure and function (Forman, 2008). Other impacts associated with land development for human uses such as agriculture and urbanization have resulted in wildlife habitat degradation (Sanderson et al., 2002), soil loss due to unsustainable agricultural practices (Napier and Tucker, 2001), and increased air and water pollution (Marshall and Shortle, 2005; Greenstein, Tiefenthaler, and Bay, 2004).

Understanding the potential effects of planning decisions/recommendations often proves challenging, as there is frequently 1) a lack of access to up-to-date water quality data (if existent at all), 2) constraints in environmentally focused planning due to a lack of political and financial support, and 3) a lack of understanding of how potential land development decisions impact water resources at multiple temporal and geographic scales.

In an attempt to help land use planners more efficiently evaluate the potential impact of planning decisions/recommendations on natural resources and water quality within the Great Lakes region, university researchers within the Great Lakes region have been working collaboratively to develop an online decision support system for the Great Lakes states. This decision support system is meant to serve as a tool in which land use planners will be able to select their planning area or watershed, identify natural resource assets, explore current land use/cover data and land development future (via the use of user defined what-if models), and investigate the potential impacts of land use decisions on water quality.

The development of the decision support system features, functionalities, and supplementary information have all been guided by feedback from land use planners, sea grant extension specialists, and university researchers. Throughout the development process, system designers

strived to meet 3 main goals: 1) to ensure at the information on the system is useful to its intended audience, 2) that information and data are presented in an easy to understand format, and 3) that the system caters to a variety of user viewpoints/perspectives and spatial land use planning jurisdictional scales. These three goals were accomplished using both qualitative and quantitative research results corresponding to survey and focus group activities with potential future decision support system users.

Current water resource perceptions

In order to identify current water quality perceptions held by regional, county/township, and municipal land use planners throughout the Great Lakes states, a total of 626 online surveys were emailed to land use planners in the fall of 2011 (376 surveys) and the fall of 2013 (250 surveys). These surveys also asked land use planners to identify what types of information they think would be useful (yet is currently unavailable to them) for assessing the potential impact of land use/cover changes on water quality, and how often they already had decision support systems available to them when making planning decisions/recommendations.

Of the 626 surveys that were emailed out, 302 surveys were completed, setting the overall response rate for the online survey at 48.2%. Of the 302 land use planners who returned completed surveys, 65.0% of individuals believed that the overall quality of surface water within their planning jurisdiction was good or excellent (48.5% and 16.5%, respectively). When compared across jurisdiction scales (i.e., municipal, county/township, and regional), municipal land use planners had held the highest perceived overall surface water quality (78.3%), while county/township and regional planners held slightly lower opinions of their overall surface water quality (61.0% county/township planners and 57.4% of regional planners, believed their water quality was good or excellent). It should be noted that these differences are not significant in size like those differences associated with perceived overall surface water quality by Great Lakes state. By Great Lakes state, land use planners in Indiana (30.0%) and Wisconsin (34.5%) believed their overall water quality was either fair or poor. The states of New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Illinois rated their water quality the highest with 82.0%, 71.8%, 71.8%, and 70.7%, respectively, stating their overall water quality was either good or excellent.

When asked to “rate the importance” of particular water quality issues/concerns each planner dealt with on a day-to-day basis, the most issues ranked most important by planners included

confined animal feeding operation (27.9%), discharge of industrial pollutants (27.9%), algal blooms (24.2%). Other top ranked issues included improper trash/garbage disposal (48.0%), motor vehicle oil and fluids entering the water (45.9%), soil erosion from development/construction sites (42.4%), and water pollutants such as industrial fluids and heavy metals (i.e., zinc, mercury, lead, and cadmium) (40.6% and 30.3%, respectively). Despite being able to recognize problems degrading water quality within their jurisdictional area, nearly 26% of the planners believed it is difficult or extremely difficult to link potential impacts of their planning decisions/recommendations to water quality. Encouraging, however, is the fact that even if some land use planners have difficulty linking the potential impacts of their planning decisions/recommendations to water quality impact, 43.3% believed they could have a moderate impact and 13.7% believed they could have a large impact on water quality based on their planning decisions/recommendations. When asked to rank the top 3 water uses planners consider when making land use decisions/recommendations, 134 of the 226 planners responding to the survey questions listed drinking water as their top priority, followed by recreational uses (both fishing and non-fishing) (118 individuals), aesthetic/scenic appeal (87 individuals), and commercial/industrial use (36 individuals).

Informing the design of the decision support system

Remaining survey questions dealt with identifying 1) what types of decision support systems land use planners currently have available to them and use, and 2) what decision support system data, features, and functionalities do planners believe would be key to ensuring that the system is both useful and usable to them. When the surveys were completed, land use planners stated that they evaluate potential impacts of their planning decisions/recommendations using a variety of internet based tools, including: GIS mapping websites/tools, land use forecasting tools, traffic flow calculators, water runoff models, decision support systems, and environmental cost/benefit calculators. Of those having decision support systems available to them seldomly (36.7%), often (22.4%), or always (11.4%), 42.8% had decisions support tools available to them to help assess potential impacts of land use/cover change on water quality, but only 14.3% actually used them. Other types of decision support systems available included those used to assess expected population growth, assess impacts to transportation, predict economic stability and growth, assess potential impacts on recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat, and identify soil loss/erosion potentials.

Despite whether or not land use planners had decision support systems available to them or not during the planning/decision-making process, decision support system abilities they believed were most important to include on a Great Lakes region decision support system included the following: 1) allowing the user to evaluate potential water quality impacts of future land use planning/development scenarios (44.6%), 2) allowing users to assess existing environmental conditions and their causes (46.9%), 3) allowing users to view information/data in a variety of formats (e.g., GIS layers, charts, and pdf. files), and 4) allowing users to view data aggregated across multiple geographic scales. Information/data identified as important to include on the decision support system was comprised of 3 main categories. These categories include current conditions information about water resources and land use/cover, land use change (both past and predicted), and information concerning groundwater resources within the Great Lakes states.

Identification of viewpoints

Responses from survey questions, as well as information gleaned from speaking with key informants, reading scientific literature, and attending both the 2011 Coastal Zone and 2011 Healing Out Water’s Conferences, a list of 42 statements were developed pertaining to DSS information/data, tools, and functionality needs/wants. In the spring of 2012, a handful of land use planners, Sea Grant extension staff, and university researchers were each asked to sort the statements based on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the statements. The 42 statements span topics such as economics, social and communication, water quality/quantity information, land use/cover change modeling scenarios, and information/data presentation. The end goal was to be able to identify differing viewpoints or perspectives held among the individuals in relation what they felt the Great Lakes decision support system should include in order to “provide the best opportunity for assessing and protecting water resources within the Great Lakes region.”

A total of 25 individuals participated in the activity, representing 6 land use planners (identified as the pilot community to test the system), 9 total Sea Grant extension specialists (representing each of the Great Lakes states), and 10 university researchers (also representing each Great Lakes state and Canada) currently working on the development of the decision

support system and data/information being input into the system. From the 25 responses received, a total of 10 different viewpoints were identified. Land use planners held 3 different viewpoints, Sea Grant extension specialists 4 viewpoints, and university researchers 3 viewpoints. A short summary of each viewpoint is as follows:

Land use planners

Viewpoint 1: Water Enthusiasts

This group strongly agrees that the decision support system should include tools to assess where immediate action is needed to protect/restore water quality. They also believe the system should 1) help them to identify ‘sensitive’ areas at greatest risk for water quality degradation, 2) include tools to help assign monetary value to water resources, and 3) contain hydrologic impact models to estimate potential nutrient/pollutant runoff given possible land use/cover change scenarios.

Viewpoint 2: Protectors of Natural Lands

Land use planners holding this second viewpoint expressed strong support for using the decision support system to prioritize the protection and restoration of natural areas (e.g., wetlands and forests), including riparian areas along rivers and streams. They also believed that the system should include possible land use/cover change scenarios that placed an emphasis on protecting critical (or high uality) wildlife habitat.

Viewpoint 3: Forward Thinkers

Forward thinking planners showed strong support for the inclusion of ecological ‘tipping points’ (or thresholds) within the system. (Note that the term ‘ecological tipping point’ is used to represent the point reached by an ecosystem in which its structure, function, and processes may be greatly altered . If a tipping point is crossed (often due to increase human induced stress to the ecosystem), the ecosystem ‘s ability to function will be altered frequently for the worse.) These individuals also believe that the decision support system should allow users to identify areas for planning outside of their current jurisdictional boundaries.

Sea Grant extension specialists

Viewpoint 1: Wildlife Guardians

Sea Grant extension specialist represent the wildlife guardians viewpoint believe that the Great Lakes decision support system should include land use/cover change scenarios prioritizing the protection of critical (or high quality) wildlife habitat.

Viewpoint2: Land Use Change Modelers

Land use change modelers are interested in using the system to assess potential impacts of land use/cover change on water resources while allowing system users to upload data/information layers into the system for analysis using GIS tools. They also believe the system should allow users to identify areas for planning outside of current jurisdictional boundaries.

Viewpoint 3: Recreationalists

Sea Grant extension specialists holding this third viewpoint believe that the decision support system should be used to prioritize the protection/restoration of water resources for recreational use.

Viewpoint 4: Risk Minimizers

Risk minimizers can be described using 4 distinguishing statements. These statements are as follows. The Great Lakes region decision support system 1) should include tools to evaluate the potential effect of biological contaminants on human health, 2) should allow user to identify sensitive (or high risk) areas in greatest risk for water quality degradation, 3) does not need to allow for individuals to collaborate with other planning jurisdictions in order to address water resource issues/concerns, and 4) does not need to provide information and tools to system users who wish to improve water quality education within local communities.

University researchers

Viewpoint 1: Tipping Point Advocates

University researchers within the first viewpoint believe that the system should identify ecological tipping points that if crossed may negatively impact water resources. These individuals also believe that the system should include tools to identify sensitive or high risk areas at greatest risk for water quality degradation and include future land use/cover change predictions assuming current rates and patterns of urban growth continue.

Viewpoint 2: Economic Optimists

Economic optimists strongly agree that they system should incorporate tools to assign monetary value to water resources and assess the potential impact of future land use/cover change scenarios of commercially harvested fish communities.

Viewpoint 3: Groundwater and What-if Model Enthusiasts

These individuals believe that the Great Lakes region decision support system should include tools to assess the potential impact of user defined land use/cover changes scenarios on water resources. They also believe that the system would be most useful if it were designed in a way to prioritize the protection of ‘natural lands’ and the protection/restoration of groundwater quality and quantity over that of surface water bodies.

Great Lakes region decision support system prototype analysis

Lastly, the same group of individuals, who were asked to sort the 42 statements in order to identify differing viewpoints, were also asked to explore and evaluate possible decision support system tools and functionalities (available on other decision support systems and websites) that could be incorporated into the Great Lakes region decision support system. Individuals were given time to explore each system tool and functionality, as well as the Great Lakes region decision support system prototype, and fill out an anonymous questionnaire related to the ‘usefulness’ and ‘ease of use’ of the system characteristics. Other questions dealt with 1) how quickly individuals felt it was for them to learn how to use each system, 2) how effective they believed system would be for them to complete their current work requirements, 3) how

enjoyable the system was to use, and 4) to what extent the system did what the users expected them to do.

After analysis of participant responses to the questionnaire revealed 4 information or tools deemed most important for inclusion on the Great Lakes region decision support system. Needed decision support system tools included the need for the system to allow users to map natural resource assets and tools that enable system users to assess potential impact of what-if land use/cover change modeling scenarios on water resources. Data/information needs were comprised of providing system users with ecological ‘tipping point’ impact from potential land use/cover change scenarios and the inclusion of a list of questions to help aid Sea Grant extension specialists in guiding land use planners through the process of 1) identifying natural resource assets and concerns and 2) setting planning priorities.

Using the decision support system to plan for the future

Despite the perceived ability of some land use planners to identify potential impacts of their planning decision/recommendations on water resources, impacts to both water quality and quantity (both surface and ground water) do exists. Survey results indicate that the majority of land use planners are lacking necessary information and want more data concerning current land use/cover and water quality information, information on groundwater resources, and tools to assess potential impacts of future land use/cover change models.

Nearly 66% of planners never or seldom have any type of decision support system available to them when making planning decisions/recommendations. Of those individuals who do have access to such systems, only 14% used them. Of this 14%, less than half (43%) has decisions support systems available to them that allowed them to assess potential impacts of planning decisions/recommendations on water quality. Clearly, there is a need for all land use planners to within the Great Lakes states to have a ‘useful’ and ‘usable’ Great Lakes decision support system to help identify potential natural resource impacts of land use/cover change in the future.

Indeed, in order to develop such a system , it is imperative that land use planners, university researchers, and Sea Grant extension specialists work together to identify these impacts, develop techniques to monitor the impacts, and devise management strategies aimed at meeting both current and future natural resource management (e.g., water quality and quantity) goals/needs.

Not all land use planning jurisdictions face the same water quality and quantity concerns. Thus, a Great Lakes region decision support system must meet a variety of potential jurisdictional needs, including but not limited to catering to differing viewpoints, presenting data/information in many different formats, allowing for users to define their planning area and set planning priorities, and including tools to help planners assess the potential impacts of user defined what-if modeling scenarios on water resources.

Literature Cited

Forman, R.T.T. 2008. Urban regions: Ecology and planning beyond the city. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom. 

Greenstein, D., L. Tiefenthaler, and S. Bay. 2004. Toxicity of parking lot runoff after application of simulated rainfall. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 45: pg. 199 - 206.

Houghton, R.A. 2009. The worldwide extent of land use change. BioScience 4(5): pg. 305-313.

Marshall, E. and J. Shortle. 2005. Urban development impacts on ecosystems. Chapter 7 in S.

Goetz, J. Shrtle, and J. Bergstrom (eds.). Land use problems and conflicts: Causes, consequences, and solutions. Rutledge, Taylor, and Francis Group.

Napier, T.L. and M. Tucker. 2001. Use of soil and water protection practices among farmers in three Midwest watersheds. Environmental Management 27(2): pg. 269-279.

Sanderson, E.W., M. Jaiteh, and M.A. Levy. 2002. The human footprint and the last of the wild. BioScience 52(10): pg. 891-904.

Zhang, Z., J. Peterson, X. Zhu, and W. Wright. 2008. Revealing long term land use and land cover in a severely disturbed environment. In:

Zhang, J. and M.F. Goodchild (eds.). 2008, June 25-27. Spatial uncertainty (vol. 1). Proceedings of the 8th International Symposium on Spatial Accuracy Assessment in Natural Resource and Environmental Sciences; Shanghai, China.

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