Web site broadens access

The Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership led by the Environmental Protection Agency, has reached a watershed point with, well, its watershed data, increasing accessibility to the general public.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed — more than 64,000 square miles that drain into the bay and its rivers — covers six states and Washington, D.C. Within that region, a slew of stakeholders, including residents, scientists and teachers, wants to keep abreast of environmental conditions in their neighborhoods, or "subwatersheds."

To improve its data management, the program began offering a customization tool on its Web site (www.chesapeake bay.net) a year and a half ago. The so-called watershed profiles assemble maps, tables, charts and other information into tailored packages by ZIP code, watershed name, county or city. By March, officials plan to move the project to a larger arena by linking with federal, state and local partners.

Users need to know "what information is relevant to my backyard, my watershed, my stream" without having to understand geographic information systems, said Rich Batiuk, the program's associate director of science.

Before, "they had to know who to call and get the data themselves," said Brian Burch, the program's data center manager. "Now all that ground work [including analysis] is done for them."

Batiuk compared the old process to watching CNN with its mix of special reports, graphics and incessant news tickers. "There's a tremendous amount of information dumped on people. They've got to make decisions, draw information for their managers," he said.

Similar to sites that personalize daily news feeds — users might select sports and forgo business updates — the profiles are "cookie-cutter" and "provide them enough options that they can pick and choose," he said. The customization tool enables them to get to the good stuff, easily and quickly.

"It's really important for the general public and from the government perspective," said John Cohen, president and chief executive officer of PSComm LLC, a consulting firm. "It allows the general public to collect critical data as part of their analytical process."

That, in turn, benefits the program. "Our bottom line is to support state, local and university partners in preservation efforts," Batiuk said. The tool "gets a much wider array of folks involved."

Those folks include federal, state and local managers.

"Do I put a Wal-Mart here?" is one type of question the program had in mind when it developed the profiles, he said, highlighting the "incremental land-use decisions that are going to make or break the watershed." Developers can see the cumulative effects of those decisions, and "municipalities can look to see their contribution to a greater problem," Burch said.

The Canaan Valley Institute, a nonprofit organization that works toward sustainability in communities in the mid-Atlantic highlands, a region that overlaps with the Chesapeake Bay watershed, markets the bay profiler through its outreach efforts, said Paul Kinder, the institute's science and technology manager. A possible outcome of that effort: Farmers have a place to look for best management practices, Kinder said.

"Everybody lives in a watershed, but they don't realize what watershed they're in," he said. "They don't know how their practices impact the water quality, both positively and negatively."

Managers within the program also rely on the tool "to compare different watersheds and make management decisions," he said. The profiles "get them pretty immediate access to more focused information on varying scales," Batiuk said. "Something that would have taken weeks [can be done] in a few clicks."

The long-term vision is to link to other federal, state and local systems, such as the Interior Department's U.S. Geological Survey. All those connections will be transparent to users, Batiuk said. "We're working with the EPA to exchange data" using Extensible Markup Language, Burch said.

***

Drilling for data

The Chesapeake Bay Web site is designed to enable users to get to the environmental data they need, without wading through peripheral information.

Consider the following test run, completed one day last month: Plugging in a northwest Washington, D.C., ZIP code brought up the Rock Creek watershed profile within seconds. Clicking on the landscapes, nutrients and toxics tabs called up specific information. Meanwhile, another function generated a customized profile with options, such as carpool statistics, developed lands and sewage disposal.

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