Environmental engineering models new ways to save water

In News, Research & Innovation

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — With a growing population and projections of a steadily warming climate, Florida’s sustainable future requires innovative approaches to water conservation. Engineers and researchers from the University of Florida are looking for water in an unexpected place: Florida’s forests.

Rayonier, the seventh largest landowner in the state and an international purveyor of forest products, funded a study that was published this week in JAWRA: Journal of the American Water Resources Association.  In it, the interdisciplinary team from the UF looked at how natural forests and pine plantations use water.

What they found is that changes in forest management – reducing tree density and frequent prescribed burning – could provide more water to the state’s vital and vulnerable aquifer. But increasing available water is not the only goal in land management. In order to maintain a healthy ecosystem, many factors come into play.

“Forests provide a number of important ecosystem services, including wildlife habitat, carbon storage, and timber – which means jobs,” said Dr. David Kaplan, assistant professor of environmental engineering at UF, and co-author of the study. “We’re not talking about cutting down all the trees, but if we can quantify how much water different types of forestry use, then we can, say, determine the value of lowering your tree density, and the best way to go about doing that”  

Those values may prove useful in providing incentives, like offering landowners financial compensation or tax breaks for water conservation. For companies invested in the logging industry in Florida, the increasing value of water may change the game on land management. But in order to understand how water might be bought, sold, and regulated throughout the state, it’s journey from cloud to aquifer and back to cloud again – by way of forested areas – must be much better understood.

The study was an interdisciplinary effort between Kaplan, Daniel McLaughlin, an assistant research scientist in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation, and Matthew Cohen, an associate professor in the UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation. 

Kaplan’s faculty position is in the Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences, which is located in the Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure & Environment (ESSIE). As an engineer working in natural systems, Kaplan is interested in quantifying the uncertainty of the research findings.

“We still have some work to do to make sure we’re giving landowners and managers the best possible numbers,” he said.

Kaplan says the next phase of study will focus on improving estimates of water use in young forests and measuring how prescribed burns affect an ecosystem’s water availability. The results of the study have the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), and several water management districts interested in supporting future research.

While forestry is not nearly as water-depleting as other types of agriculture in the state, it does take up a lot of real estate – about 16 million acres. Changes in forestry management could have a considerable effect on aquifer levels. And changes to the aquifer levels could have a considerable effect on real estate. In thriving ecosystem, everything is interdependent.