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2012 EPA Research Progress Report

Sustainability Science: Understanding Ecosystem Services in Wetlands

The multitudes of benefits people derive from the environment are so abundant and free flowing that they are easy to overlook. Because these benefits are difficult to quantify, they are often left out or undervalued in risk assessments and other analyses that decision makers use to set environmental policies and protect human health.

EPA scientists have embarked on a research effort to help change this oversight. Research in Tampa Bay, Florida is advancing the science of sustainability by focusing on aspects of the natural environment that form the foundation of ecology, economy, and overall well-being. These beneficial aspects of nature are what scientists refer to as “ecosystem services” —and include such things as flood control, fertile soils, biological diversity, and the natural cycles that cleanse air and water.

A U.S. Human Well-being Index

A defining component of sustainability, as highlighted in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, is "to create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations."


EPA's Human Well-being Index (HWBI), released as a draft in 2012, is being designed to help communities live more sustainably. When final, the HWBI will provide a Web-based predictive model to help communities identify the links between long-term sustainability, understand the flow of ecosystem services, and prioritize the well-being of humans.

In 2012, EPA scientists completed a two-year study in nine mangrove wetlands and 18 freshwater riparian and marsh sites with varying levels of human disturbance in the Tampa Bay drainage basin. Analysis of the study results will become part of a dynamic model that allows users to understand how human disturbance affects the ecosystem services of wetlands, particularly regarding the removal of nutrient pollution and improved water quality. This project is part of an effort to illustrate the trade-offs in ecosystem services associated with alternative management decision scenarios. Research results are available through a new, user-friendly website for Tampa Bay.

Additionally, scientists are partnering with local governments, other research entities, planning organizations, and citizen and business groups to identify and assess the values a productive ecosystem provides to the community. All these experts will help paint a more complete picture of Tampa Bay that decision makers can use when establishing development and environmental plans.

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