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National Wetlands Research Center

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U.S. Geological Survey
National Wetlands Research Center

Strategic Plan: 2010-2015

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) provides a broad range of national expertise in geography, geology, hydrology, and biology.  The mission of the USGS is to provide reliable scientific information to describe and understand the Earth; minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters; assist others in managing water, biological, and mineral resources; and enhance and protect quality of life.  The USGS places a special emphasis on providing science to the land and resource management bureaus of the Department of the Interior (DOI).  The Biological Resources Discipline activities assist in maintaining healthy ecosystems and natural resources so that these habitats can continue to provide food, energy, medicine, transportation, and recreation.

The development of a science-driven strategic plan is paramount to address global trends and rapidly evolving societal needs that pose important natural-science challenges. The emergence of a global economy affects the demand for all resources. The last decade has witnessed the emergence of a new model for managing Federal lands—ecosystem-based management. The U.S. Climate Change Science Program predicts that the next few decades will see rapid changes in the Nation’s and the Earth’s environment. Finally, the natural environment continues to pose risks to society in the form of volcanoes, earthquakes, wildland fires, floods, droughts, invasive species, variable and changing climate, and natural and anthropogenic toxins, as well as animal-borne diseases that affect humans. The use of, and competition for, natural resources on the global scale, and natural threats to those resources, have the potential to impact the Nation’s ability to sustain its economy, national security, quality of life, and natural environment. Responding to these national priorities and global trends requires a science strategy that not only builds on existing USGS strengths and partnerships but also demands the innovation made possible by integrating the full breadth and depth of USGS capabilities.  


The mission of the National Wetlands Research Center (NWRC) is to develop and disseminate scientific information needed for understanding the ecology and values of wetlands and for managing and restoring wetlands, coastal habitats, and associated plant and animal communities throughout our world.


The NWRC is a research facility of the Biology discipline under the USGS that focuses on long-term, large-scale, (across State and international boundaries), and relevant (addressing the DOI stewardship responsibilities) wetland research throughout the world. Three overarching goals that guide the direction of the NWRC are:

Build Scientific Knowledge: Seek Discovery
Provide the scientific information to address current and future questions related to wetlands, watershed processes, coastal ecosystems, and Department of the Interior trust species.  Invest in new scientific capabilities and technology development to ensure future challenges can be addressed.

Develop the Partnerships: Adaptive Science/Management
Build iterative research-management relationships with other DOI bureaus, other governmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and academia that ensure effective science information is provided, the NWRC’s products are used, and scientific capabilities are evolving to meet future biological issues.

Focus on Outcomes
Evaluate the effectiveness of the NWRC’s science enterprise and continually seek to enhance the impact on resource management, regulations, and policy.

The NWRC addresses emerging issues that are of concern to natural resource partners and the scientific community in thematic, geographic, and scientific areas where management decisions and critical information are needed by the Nation’s environmental and water managers.

Thematic Areas

Watershed Science for Management and Restoration: Discovery & Understanding

  • Provide biological information needed for sustainable management of watersheds at a landscape scale under dynamic influences related to anthropogenic activities and changing environmental conditions.

  • Develop scientific information that quantifies the complex processes that drive the health and viability of plant and animal communities and their habitats, including the impacts of invasive species and global climate change, population genetics, and habitat-species relationships.

Science for Coastal Environments:  Monitoring & Integrated Science

  • Provide the scientific information, in cooperation with other USGS scientific disciplines, required for sustainable management of freshwater wetland and coastal environments, including relationships to the human dimension and footprint.

  • Conduct research that supports freshwater wetland and coastal restoration programs, including a comprehensive understanding of the relationships among plant and animal communities and the coastal environment.

  • Develop science and technology in programs to assess and predict ecological consequences related to natural hazards including hurricanes, landslides, erosion, and other large-scale hazards.
Modeling and Spatial Analysis: Prediction & Forecasting
  • Develop conceptual models of large systems, both geographically and ecologically based, that guide adaptive management/adaptive science approaches to complex biological problems (especially restoration).

  • Develop and implement quantitative and predictive models designed to assist resource management decisions that link management actions to ecological outcomes.  

  • Create and adapt existing tools and technologies from other disciplines to address ecological questions.

  • Develop predictive models that address fire and global change in large-scale ecosystems restoration and management.

Science Impact: Synthesis & Fusion

  • Synthesize scientific information to ensure the appropriate understanding and use of the information and tools by resource managers, policy and decision makers, and regulatory agencies.  

  • Develop biological and wetland-focused information tools and products critical to DOI, other Federal and State stakeholders, and the public and support their use through training, education, and outreach.

  • Use innovative approaches to enhance the fusion of biological, hydrological, geological, and geographic information to achieve synergistic results and a deeper comprehension of ecological processes.

Geographic Areas

The four thematic science areas above represent opportunities for developing science across many different landscapes.  The NWRC has developed expertise and solid partnerships in the first two geographic areas below and will continue to seek new opportunities to enhance the impact of our science in management and restoration efforts.  The NWRC has also developed partnerships around the world that help elucidate the complex processes that drive biological systems in watersheds and coastal environments.  It is critical that comparative studies and diverse scientific cooperative efforts be continued and enhanced in order for the NWRC to remain in the forefront of scientific discovery.

Gulf of Mexico Coast

  • Coastal land loss and habitat degradation are occurring on the Gulf of Mexico coast at alarming rates.  Among other issues, this area supports the migration and wintering of more than 70% of the Nation’s migratory bird populations, provides a buffer against hurricane threats to coastal and urban communities, and is a major economic portal for the United States for gas and oil resources (about one-third of all resources) for the Nation. The Texas coast supports some of the highest concentrations of spring-migrating neotropical songbirds that concentrate in coastal hardwood bottomlands (e.g. Columbia Bottomlands).  These critical habitats are being replaced by subdivisions and other development, including a large number of communication towers, at an increasing rate. The NWRC needs to expand efforts with its partners to ensure that critically needed science is developed to enable management projects to reverse the trend in land loss and restore coastal environments.
Lower Mississippi Valley
  • The alteration and degradation of the forest and wetland ecosystems of the Lower Mississippi River Alluvial Valley (LMV), the Nation’s largest floodplain, are nearly unprecedented in both scale and scope, and represents the greatest opportunities for habitat restoration of any region in the United States. The conversion of more than 75% of the riparian forests, primarily to agriculture, has caused the loss and degradation of many ecosystem functions and services including plant and animal habitat, flood storage, nutrient and sediment retention, and carbon storage, and resulted in these areas becoming net sources of greenhouse gases and nutrients as opposed to net sinks under natural forests. The NWRC has expertise and data that are needed to understand and effectively restore and manage the LMV and is working closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and other stakeholders to build a framework for research and management to restore the Nation’s great floodplain.
Watersheds and Coastal Environments of the World
  • Coastal environments are threatened on a global scale as human populations and development pressures increase in coastal areas.  These coastal areas are highly susceptible to natural disasters.  In addition, entire watersheds and critical processes are threatened by land use practices and human development. The NWRC will continue to develop scientific partnerships across the United States and with other countries to facilitate research and cooperation to understand large ecosystem function and processes.  Comparative studies allow hypothesis generation and testing that will ultimately drive the management, policy decisions, and regulations related to land and water resource management. Research on this scale is required to investigate the processes and impacts of large-scale ecological changes, such as sea-level rise and climate change, and it is critical to examine ecosystems that are affected by different biotic and abiotic factors.  Expanding research and cooperative efforts to far reaching ecosystems allows for new hypothesis generation and testing at a landscape scale.

Linkages to Organizational Strategic Goals

The NWRC has developed goals within the context of the DOI, USGS, and USGS National Programs. Like all USGS Science, current NWRC science projects address the USGS Program goals that were developed under the 2007-2017 timeframe; however, this strategic plan also looks to the future and is connected to new USGS Program goals that were recently developed and released in a 10-Year Program Plan.  The context for the NWRC strategic direction, and NWRC linkages to the organizational strategic goals, are presented in the Appendix.

Guiding Principles

The management of the NWRC is based on the following general principles to guide the implementation of our mission and science planning:

  • Create a safe and professional work environment that sustains the values of personal respect, integrity, appreciation of diversity, and customer/partner service and promotes the passion and creativity that is vital to the scientific enterprise.
  • Engage our scientific cooperators and the end-users of our scientific information in all aspects of the scientific process, from planning through application.
  • Develop the critical science needed to support the mission of the Department of the Interior bureaus through close cooperation.
  • Develop strong partnerships that promote an adaptive approach to both science and management.
  • Continually seek new approaches, tools, and methods to meet the emerging needs of our partners.
  • Integrate the intellectual assets of USGS scientific disciplines to address large-scale, complex ecological problems.

Core Capabilities

The core capabilities of NWRC have been developed in response to partner needs since the inception of the NWRC.  This document recognizes the critical need in the future to provide the Nation’s decision makers with user-inspired basic research.  The NWRC has developed expertise in areas that support resource management, policy development, and regulatory authorities of the Department of the Interior and the USACE as well as our key partners including the States, non-governmental organizations, and other Federal agencies.  These core capabilities include:

  • Determining the processes affecting wetland community viability
  • Characterizing and monitoring wetland ecosystems and wetland-dependent flora and fauna
  • Applying geospatial analyses to develop and test hypotheses at a landscape scale
  • Modeling and analyzing species–habitat relationships to improve management techniques
  • Developing remote sensing tools for early detection, monitoring, and assessing the impacts of invasive species
  • Development of informational tools for synthesis and access to biological information
  • Development of forecasting models at the landscape, ecosystem, species, and organismal scale to address climate change, natural and anthropogenic disturbances, and land management actions and alternatives
  • Technology transfer, training, and on-the-ground technical support for DOI natural resource managers


The NWRC serves the Nation as the preeminent source of scientific information and technology used by those who manage and restore wetlands, coastal habitats/ecosystems, and the species that depend upon them.


Funding Stability – Sustained scientific capability requires the ability to plan and conduct experiments over an extended time period.  The redirection of funds, erosion of “buying power” resulting from level funding, and funding reductions and rescissions work against sound management of a scientific enterprise, the ability to retain scientific capability, the  maintenance of relationships with DOI client bureaus, and the effectiveness in meeting the DOI and other stakeholder needs. 

User-inspired Basic Research – The future of earth science research will have to be collaborative and cooperative across Federal, State, and local agencies.  Basic research with no end use is research the NWRC can not sustain in the long-term.  While there is a need to build base funding to support the leveraging of reimbursable funds to the NWRC, there is a greater need to bring the environmental managers and decision-makers of our Nation to bear to help direct the NWRC’s research in wetland biology, ecology, and hydrology.  A user-inspired research vision will not only build sustainability but will allow for significant growth of both basic research and application science.

Development of Collaborative and Cooperative Relationships – Competition among Federal, State, and local environmental agencies is no longer a valid method of serving the Nation’s environmental concerns.  The need to leverage available funding and collaborate and cooperate at every phase of addressing environmental issues is essential to the successful operation and maintenance of the NWRC.  Partnerships are paramount in the future of the NWRC.

Changes in Staff While stability of the intellectual foundation of the NWRC is essential for a stable program, there is also a need for the flexibility to create new technologies and integrate multidisciplinary approaches as they become available from the academic community.  Maintaining a balance between stability and flexibility will be a challenge.

Training While areas such as information technology security have grown into institutionalized training efforts, the scientific development of the future workforce continues to be a major challenge.  Moreover, cross-disciplinary training needed to enhance the integration of our science and the ability to address complex landscape-scale problems is an area that remains undeveloped.

Facilities The NWRC is well situated to bring a multi-disciplinary science approach to support land management and environmental challenges associated with the human population shifts to coastal locations and associated watersheds.  These issues can only be addressed by building integrated, multidisciplinary approaches that require specialized facilities that are designed, owned, and maintained by the organization for optimal effectiveness. 

Scientific Agenda

The NWRC has the opportunity to work with other USGS disciplines, and the Nation’s decision-making agencies, to look to the future and define a scientific agenda. The following future science agenda was developed by representatives of all four USGS disciplines in cooperation with our partners. The NWRC agenda in the foreseeable future will incorporate four of the six main science strategies into the science program.

Understanding Ecosystems and Predicting Ecosystem Change: Ensuring the Nation’s Economic and Environmental Future

In collaboration with others, the NWRC reports on the state of the Nation’s wetland (terrestrial, freshwater, and coastal/marine) ecosystems; studies the causes and consequences of ecological change; monitors; provides methods for protecting and managing the biological and physical components and processes of ecosystems; and interprets for policymakers how current and future rates of change will affect natural resources and society. The NWRC works in collaboration with others to understand the distribution, interactions, condition, and conservation requirements of organisms in an ecosystem context, and predicts changes to biodiversity resulting from land-cover change, climate change, and other impacts to ecosystems. The NWRC and its partners will advance understanding, through research, of ecosystem structure, function, patterns, and processes, and will develop new products, including standardized national maps of ecosystems in the United States. They will also provide regularly updated reports on the status of ecosystems and assessment of trends that will help communities and managers make informed decisions that take into account ecosystem health and sustainability.  The research and application of wetland ecosystem science involve the following NWRC priority areas:

1.  Improve our Understanding of Complex Natural Processes – This understanding is needed to plan river diversions, large-scale vegetative plantings, hydrologic management, beneficial or dedicated use of dredged materials, and beach and barrier renourishment as well as learn how those physical and biological processes affect the outcomes of restoration strategies.  Important too is the understanding of how the biological processes interact with physical processes and improving our abilities to forecast how biological systems will respond to physical change.  The NWRC is a world-class leader in understanding how climate change will interact with other natural and human-induced processes that affect coastal habitats.  Future research will explain the role of sea-level rise and recurring hurricanes on coastal habitat sustainability and restoration success.  The focus will be on coastal areas that are already stressed or deteriorating because of subsidence, storm surge impacts, changes in hydrology, a lack of sediment or nutrient delivery, or human developments (such as flood control levees, impoundments, and dredged canals).  

2.  Evaluation of Restoration Success and Development of Novel Methodologies for Restoration – We design and test methodologies for surveying and monitoring restored, created, and rehabilitated marsh and forested wetlands, seagrasses and other submerged aquatics, and barrier islands.  Appropriate methodologies for various spatial and temporal scales will be developed and tested in collaboration with partners.  Additional greenhouses are needed for experiments that test hypotheses relating to plant growth, species tolerance to environmental stress, and effects of environmental perturbation on ecological services (such as carbon sequestration).  Work describing the effectiveness of restoration will support “adaptive management” by enabling resource managers to respond in an iterative fashion to trends in ecosystem response associated with environmental change or specific restoration techniques. 

3.  Improve our Understanding of Complex Interactions – These interactions are among individual plant species interactions, population dynamics, and community processes for the predominant systems being restored (e.g., riverine, open waters and bays, fresh marsh, brackish marsh, intermediate marsh, salt marsh, and barrier systems).  Experimental ecology will involve field sites, controlled greenhouse environments, and laboratories.  A herbarium is also needed to house specimens.  Biogeochemical and specific soil equipment will be needed to evaluate nutrients and environmental stressors in different soil conditions and types, and to assess their interactions with the biota.  A laboratory dedicated to mesocosm and growth-chamber (mini-phytotron) research will be used.

Interactions among biotic and abiotic processes may lead to thresholds and feedbacks that dramatically alter both the sustainability of ecosystems and their value to society.  Understanding these complex interactions is an important aspect of climate change impact and invasive species science.  For example, competitive interactions between native and nonindigenous species are often the primary pathway for a nonindigenous species to become “invasive.”  Changes in sea level can lead to rapid, threshold-type responses within ecological communities, as illustrated by episodic losses of coastal wetlands in Louisiana and Florida during the past 100 years. Advancements in our understanding of complex ecosystem dynamics are needed to support adaptive management and to provide strategies for mitigation of and adaptation to the interactive effects of climate change and human activities on biological systems.

4.  Restoration Genetics Research – Both natural and restored populations must have sufficient genetic diversity to be viable, an aspect of restoration that is all too often forgotten or ignored by practitioners and scientists alike.  The decline in population viability or individual fitness of rare species is often a function of loss of genetic diversity or increasing frequencies of occurrence of deleterious alleles through random drift; thus the importance of studying genetics in rare or endangered species that are the targets of restoration is especially important. The NWRC is already a leader in this field, and along with their university partners will give this aspect of restoration the attention it requires.

5.  Status, Trends, and Ecology of Wetland-dependent Fish and Wildlife – There are immense gaps in our understanding of how climate change and restoration programs and projects will affect fish and wildlife populations and the interaction of fish and wildlife with landscapes.  Climate change will inevitably shift landscapes from one kind of system to another, e.g., from freshwater types to estuarine, or marsh systems to shallow bays.  Such shifts will also affect the capability of these systems to support fish and wildlife.  Systems dominated by estuarine species of fish may move toward systems dominated by freshwater species or vice versa depending on the rate or effectiveness of restoration efforts or adaptations to climate change.  Populations of waterfowl and other wetland birds that heavily use freshwater systems may shift toward kinds of waterfowl and wetland birds that use saltier systems.  Ecosystem shifts or migration will inevitably bring concomitant changes in species of fish and wildlife.  These relationships are not well understood, and although we do know enough to forecast shifts in general, the details of how they respond over longer periods of time are unknown.  These efforts would improve our understanding of populations of fresh and estuarine fishes and invertebrate or vegetative food bases, their ecology, and the basic natural mechanisms for sustained population management.  It would improve our understanding of how bird populations respond to these changes and the functions and values of various habitats and habitat systems, including values for food, breeding, rearing young, or escape cover.  It would also improve our understanding of how mammalian species, muskrat, nutria, rats, mice, raccoons, and other species use these various habitats and how the value of these habitats shifts in response to environmental change.

6.  Ecological Modeling and Landscape Ecology-GIS Laboratory – The use of ecological models is growing rapidly to aid engineers and managers in designing restoration projects and evaluating their effectiveness.  Indeed there is a revolution in ecological models that began with the emergence of improved computer capabilities yet the science of ecological modeling is young.  The expression of relationships to physical change, which provides the underpinning to such models, needs improvement.  The approach to ecological modeling must result in an improvement in our ability to forecast what will happen to plant and animal communities as we alter the physical world and improve model accuracy in forecasts of outcomes of various restoration activities. 

7.  Chemical Threats / Toxicity – Toxic materials in river waters and sediments may prove to be a significant problem for projects involving river diversions of water and sediment.  There is widespread concern on the possible water-quality impacts on aquatic and semi-aquatic organisms and on algae, submerged aquatic plants, marsh plants, and swamp vegetation in coastal restoration projects receiving water from the Mississippi River and coastal rivers draining agricultural and urban areas.  Restoration project managers are concerned that major sources of fresh water available for coastal and forested wetlands may be declared off limits by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because of the presence of several pesticides in these waters.  Compounds of concern in these rivers include the triazines herbicides, fipronil, trace metals, and emerging contaminants such as those from pharmaceuticals.

Few studies have been done using these compounds to determine their toxicological impacts, if any, on the flora and fauna present in coastal restoration project areas.  For example, recreational users of the Atchafalaya Basin, the major distributary of the Mississippi River, have complained about the decline in frog populations but data are insufficient for evaluating the influence of atrazine on amphibian declines.  Additionally, a flotant marsh receiving Atchafalaya River water for the last 30 years is deteriorating dramatically.  It is unclear at this time whether this large loss of wetlands is caused by nutrient enrichment or stress by exposure to atrazine in the Atchafalaya River water.  There is an urgent need to determine what levels of these compounds will impact indigenous flora and faunal populations in impacted areas.  This determination can be accomplished by the expansion of wet lab and office space for toxicologists to conduct experiments and genetic/morphometric evaluations of specimens exposed to these compounds.

8.  Invasive Species – Most U. S. invasive species are found in aquatic and wetland environments.  Forestry, fisheries, navigation, recreation, public water supplies, and public health are among the affected sectors.  Loss of native biological diversity because of invasive species constitutes one of the greatest long-term potential impacts affecting the national parks and national wildlife refuges in the coastal zone.  In addition, changes in ecosystem characteristics caused by invasive species raise important questions about a wide variety of coastal issues including alteration of fish and wildlife habitat, impacts on restoration efforts, and the need for adjustments in management plans. 

Water sources for restoration projects often contain invasive species. This is especially true for the Mississippi River and coastal water bodies that are subjected to the spread of invasive aquatic organisms that arrive in the ballast waters of international vessels.  Organisms such as the zebra mussel have serious impacts on the ecology of receiving waters, especially on native freshwater bivalves found there. 

NWRC scientists, in collaboration with DOI land managers, have initiated several projects that address invasive species problems in the Gulf of Mexico coastal region.  Most of these current projects involve Chinese tallow, nutria, and cogon grass, but there are numerous other species of concern to wetland and coastal managers.  NWRC will expand its invasive species science in the coastal zone and the Lower Mississippi Valley to address the following National Program goals:  understanding the pathways of introduction, assessing and reporting the abundance and spread of invasive species, and assessment of the effects of invasive species on ecosystem properties.
9.  Socioeconomic Analyses – It is important that resource managers understand the human dimensions of ecological restoration and management.  Many coastal restoration projects that have been well thought out from an engineering/ecological/geologic perspective have been challenged by inadequate prior assessment of the ways in which they will affect the human communities that live within the impact area, especially those community members who engage in long-practiced commercial or recreational uses of the areas.  The result has been unintended and previously unrecognized socioeconomic impacts, both positive and negative.  When unanticipated negative effects of a restoration project have become evident to various local community members, opposition and mobilization to question, alter, delay, or stop the project has resulted.  Conflicts of this nature are currently a major obstacle in the planning of freshwater diversions in coastal Louisiana.  Partnerships will be developed with the USGS Fort Collins social sciences group and universities to address these problems. 

Climate Variability and Change: Clarifying the Record and Assessing Consequences

NWRC scientists will meet the pressing needs of the U.S. Department of the Interior, policy-makers, and resource managers for scientifically valid state-of-the-science information and predictive understanding of climate change and its effects. Studies of the interactions among climate, earth-surface processes, and ecosystems across space and time will contribute directly to the strategic goals of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. To answer questions about how the world is changing, the NWRC will expand its already strong research and monitoring initiatives in the science of carbon, nitrogen, and water cycles, hydro-climatic and ecosystem effects of climate change, and land-cover and land-use change. The NWRC will continue studies of paleo-climate and past interactions of climate with landscapes and ecosystems, and apply the knowledge gained to understanding potential future states and processes. Expanded and modernized NWRC observing networks of land, water, and biological resources will be crucial to rigorous analyses of future responses to climate change. The NWRC will provide robust predictive and empirical tools for managers to test adaptive strategies, reduce risk, and increase the potential for hydrologic and ecological systems to be self-sustaining, resilient, or adaptable to climate change and related disturbances. In order for the NWRC to respond to evolving national and global priorities, it must periodically reflect on and optimize its strategic directions. This report is the first comprehensive science strategy since the early 1990s to examine critically major NWRC science goals and priorities. The development of this science strategy comes at a time of global trends and rapidly evolving societal needs that pose important natural-science challenges. The emergence of a global economy affects the demand for all resources. The last decade has witnessed the emergence of a new model for managing Federal lands—ecosystem-based management. The U.S. Climate Change Science Program predicts that the next few decades will see rapid changes in the Nation’s and the Earth’s environment. Finally, the natural environment continues to pose risks to society in the form of volcanoes, earthquakes, wildland fires, floods, droughts, invasive species, variable and changing climate, and natural and anthropogenic toxins, as well as animal-borne diseases that affect humans. The use of and competition for natural resources on the global scale and natural threats to those resources have the potential to impact the Nation’s ability to sustain its economy, national security, quality of life, and natural environment. Responding to these national priorities and global trends requires a science strategy that not only builds on existing NWRC strengths and partnerships but also demands the innovation made possible by integrating the full breadth and depth of NWRC capabilities. The NWRC chooses to go forward in the science directions proposed here because the societal issues addressed by these science directions represent major challenges for the Nation’s future and for the stewards of Federal lands, both onshore and offshore. The six science directions proposed in this science strategy are summarized in the following paragraphs. The ecosystems strategy is listed first because it has a dual nature. It is itself an essential direction for the NWRC to pursue to meet a pressing national and global need, but ecosystem-based approaches are also an underpinning of the other five directions, which all require ecosystem perspectives and tools for their execution. The remaining strategic directions are listed in alphabetical order. The following science areas will propel the NWRC into the future with respect to global climate change.

1.  Delta Research And Global Observation Network (DRAGON) – The purpose of the DRAGON Project is to create a platform for integrating discipline specialists for developing a community of practice that addresses complex issues for effective and sustainable management of deltas and large rivers.  The DRAGON project was launched on December 1, 2007, at the conclusion of the International Delta Roundtable meeting hosted by the NWRC and attended by more than 150 scientists from 10 different nations. All USGS efforts within the framework of the DRAGON Project are focused on building information resources on critical delta processes that can be applied directly to the restoration and management of the Mississippi Delta.  A frequently updated DRAGON Web site ( links scientists together and also provides thousands of scientific papers, maps, data sets, and images of 14 major deltas around the globe.  The project has fostered the exchange of scientists (e.g., Chinese scientists working in the Mississippi Delta), ecological model development (e.g., fire management in the Mekong), and even the creation of a DRAGON Institute in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam to coordinate and promote climate change research in one of the most vulnerable deltas in the world.

Considerations for DRAGON Project Expansion and Development

The DRAGON Project offers real opportunities to enhance USGS science partnerships, both domestically with a focus on the Mississippi River watershed and internationally with science communities concerned with other mega deltas and especially the future impacts of climate change.   The Project’s goals and even current scope far exceed any single center, region, or discipline within the USGS, and expansion of the project management and technical work needs to be considered.  This expansion might include:

Expand the Organizational Framework for the DRAGON Project

The Creation of a DRAGON International Advisory Board (IAB): An International Advisory Board of Directors will set the direction, priorities, and goals of the Project’s international annual work plan and will review and recommend changes in policy through consultation with science partners, governmental officials, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the larger scientific and educational communities located in the major deltas of the world. The IAB will seek representation from a variety of organizations and sectors.  The IAB will have one annual meeting each year with the location and timing to be decided.  [Possible Membership:  Directors of Science Centers in various deltas, NGOs representatives, other Federal agency representatives, USGS Chief Scientists, and Regional Executives with an Executive Leadership Team Member as Chair]

The Creation of a USGS DRAGON Planning Committee (DPC): The DRAGON Planning Committee will set the direction, priorities, and goals of the Project’s annual work plan seeking to integrate USGS science across Disciplines, Regions, and Areas.  The goal is to link existing studies, models, and activities within USGS related to physical and ecological processes.  Linkages to priorities in the USGS Science Strategy will be critical.  Data integration and the development of visualization tools and spatially explicit models will be important features in advancing the knowledge of delta processes.  The DPC will consider all deltas where USGS has current or past projects and data and will also include large river science and watershed processes as key components to understanding resulting impacts to large deltas. [Possible membership:  USGS Science Center Directors and Program Coordinators (PC) with a Center Director or PC Chair]

The Creation of a USGS DRAGON Technical Working Group: The DRAGON Technical Working Group (Working Group) will consist of USGS scientists actively involved in research and modeling related to USGS DRAGON Project priorities.  The working Group would be expected to change in membership from year to year as projects are terminated and started.  Coordination meetings would help facilitate data sharing and cooperation across projects. [Possible membership:  USGS researchers and modelers from every discipline, with a GIO Chair]

Secretariat:  Provided by the USGS NWRC; Center Director serves as Executive Secretary to the groups above.

2.  Lower Mississippi Valley Initiatives The alteration and degradation of the forest and wetland ecosystems of the Lower Mississippi River Alluvial Valley (LMV), the Nation’s largest floodplain, is nearly unprecedented in both scale and scope and represents the greatest opportunities for habitat restoration of any region in the United States. In addition to the well-documented effects on numerous wildlife species such as the Louisiana black bear, wetland losses in the LMV have reduced the nutrient buffering capabilities of the river system, thereby increasing nutrient overloads into the river mainstem and leading to hypoxia in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Forested wetlands have the potential for enormous carbon sequestration to offset carbon being pumped into the air by human activities. The specific issues that will be addressed by NWRC scientists are amounts of carbon sequestration, greenhouse gas emissions, restoration options and methods for forested wetlands, impacts on related on- and off-site environmental conditions, and effects on fish and wildlife.

NWRC, in cooperation with Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, is developing geographic information system (GIS) tools for use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies that are involved in large-scale ecological restoration in the LMV.  A conceptual model will also be developed to identify the underlying natural processes controlling ecosystem structure and function and the response of riparian forests in the LMV to stressors and disturbance, especially in light of the impacts to DOI trust resources and species from extensive habitat restoration and predicted climate change. The conceptual model will synthesize our current understanding of ecosystem processes, environmental gradients, and linkages between systems in the LMV.

In cooperation with six LMV States, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the USGS is leading an emerging initiative called the Lower Mississippi River Natural Resource Assessment as authorized in Section 402 of the Water Resources Development Act of 2000.  The primary role of USGS will be to gather and inventory, analyze, and deliver critical scientific information and technologies needed by various State, Federal, and private river managers to ensure a proper balance between the often competing economic, flood-control, recreational, and environmental interests. 

3.  Coastal Change (Spatial Investigations) As the human population of the United States continues to migrate to coastal areas, it is becoming increasingly important that we understand the changes in the landscape and its ecosystems occurring as a result of both human and natural influences.  The proposed Coastal Change Institute would focus on long-term monitoring of coastal change, as it relates to topography (land loss/gain and subsidence) and bathymetry (sea-level change, shoreline definition) at a very high resolution and on an established, relatively frequent cyclical basis.  This effort will not only be responsible for the operational aspects of this monitoring program, but will also be responsible for new technology and technique development related to monitoring coastal change, and for managing and disseminating scientific data and information gathered to stakeholders across all sectors.  There will also be a scientific visualization component to analyze and display data and information.  Lastly, the effort will support the Coast-wide Ecosystem Reference Monitoring System for Louisiana restoration programs.

Specific functions to be performed:

  • Spatial data collection, processing, and modeling to include satellite and airborne imagery and other sensor data (e.g., radar, thermal, bathymetric data) including ground-based data integration.
  • Analysis of current and historical data collected to derive specific metrics (e.g., ecosystems alterations, land loss, subsidence over time, changes in shoreline).
  • Management and dissemination in electronic form, i.e., Internet, of raw and derived data to partners and other stakeholders.
  • Regional and site-specific computer simulation/visualization including 3- and 4-dimensional outputs.
  • Monitor wetland gain/loss trends and functions for the proposed $14 billion coastal Louisiana restoration program.

A National Hazards, Risk, and Resilience Assessment Program: Ensuring the Long-Term Health and Wealth of the Nation

The NWRC collects accurate and timely information from modern earth observation networks, assesses areas at risk to wetlands from natural hazards, and conducts focused research to improve hazard predictions in wetland science. In addition, the NWRC works actively with the Nation’s communities to assess the vulnerability of cities and ecosystems and to ensure that science is effectively applied to reduce losses. The NWRC will develop a wetlands risk-monitoring program, built on a robust underpinning of hazard assessment and research, to visualize and provide perspectives at multiple scales of vulnerability and resilience to adverse land change and hazards. Accurate observations, focused research, and timely communications will safeguard people and property and keep natural hazards from becoming natural disasters.

The Role of Environment and Wildlife in Human Health: A System that Identifies Environmental Risk to Public Health in America

The NWRC can contribute substantially to public-health decision making in wetland ecology and hydrology. The NWRC monitors wetland wildlife, is at the forefront of identifying wetland wild animal disease reservoirs, and maintains critical knowledge about wild animal disease transmission to humans, drinking-water contaminants, air-dust-soil-sediment-rock contaminants, pathogens in recreational water, and the use of wild animals as sentinels of human health. To employ this expertise in support of the Nation’s health needs, the USGS will fully integrate its massive data holdings and environmental science expertise to produce a national database and atlas of geology, and ecology-sourced diseases and toxicants. Once this atlas is in place, the NWRC will partner with allied health science agencies to support spatially related health research.


The NWRC will continue to develop partnerships with other DOI bureaus, other governmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and academia to strengthen our ability to address complex environmental issues.  These partnerships will enhance our abilities to provide credible scientific information to assist policy makers and land managers who will face increasingly complex social and environmental decisions.

Looking into the Future

The NWRC has grown in the scope and depth of its research, monitoring, spatial analysis, and information science capabilities in response to stakeholder needs.  This Strategic Plan represents one phase in the continued development of the NWRC’s programs and will serve as a starting point for future strategic planning and direction that will include key stakeholders, USGS scientists, and those who depend upon USGS science to meet their mission needs.  This continued planning effort, starting in FY2010, will further inform the future direction and goals of the NWRC.

Appendix.  Linkages to 2007-2017 USGS Strategic Science Goals

 Linkages to Current USGS National Program Goals

The NWRC addresses local, regional, national, and global scientific needs for sustainable resource management in direct support of the USGS Science in the Decade 2007-2017.  There are six principal Strategic goals and two cross-cutting thematic elements.  The NWRC is addressing four of these six Strategic Goals (in bold):

1.  Understanding Ecosystems and Predicting Ecosystem Change: Ensuring the Nation’s Economic and Environmental Future;

2.  Climate Variability and Change: Clarifying the Record and Assessing Consequences;

3.  Energy and Minerals for America’s Future: Providing a Scientific Foundation for Resource Security, Environmental Health, Economic Vitality, and Land Management;

4.  A National Hazards, Risk, and Resilience Assessment Program: Ensuring the Long-Term Health and Wealth of the Nation;

5.  The Role of Environment and Wildlife in Human Health: A System that Identifies Environmental Risk to Public Health in America; and

6.  A Water Census of the United States: Quantifying, Forecasting, and Securing Freshwater for America’s Future.

Cross-cutting science themes:

Additionally the NWRC participates and is planning in the future to integrate two major cross-cutting themes into our program of research.  These cross-cutting themes are and will be integrated into all aspects of the NWRC Science Agenda.

Data Integration and Beyond

The NWRC will use its information resources to create a more integrated and accessible environment for its vast resources of past and future data. It will invest in cyber-infrastructure, nurture and cultivate programs in natural-science informatics, and participate in efforts to build a global integrated science and computing platform.

Leveraging Evolving Technologies

The NWRC will foster a culture and resource base that encourages innovation, thereby advancing scientific discovery through the development and application of state-of-the-art technologies. The next decade poses formidable challenges, but it also holds unprecedented opportunities for USGS science to improve the economic and environmental health and prosperity of people and communities across the Nation and around the world. The NWRC looks forward to applying the full breadth and depth of its scientific capabilities to meet the challenges of the 21st century and for its partners and customers in forms suited to their needs, interests, and responsibilities. Thus, expansion of information technology to allow for seamless data and information sharing is an important component of the USGS science strategy. However, information technology is only one of the technological areas that will require continual updating. The USGS must keep abreast of advances in areas, such as environmental sensors, microbiology, nanotechnology, and many other emerging technologies.

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