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Stanford Researchers Pursue Environmental Solutions

The Stanford Woods Institute announces 2015 Environmental Venture Projects and Realizing Environmental Innovation Program grants.

How can drones help improve water quality in the San Francisco Bay? What does it take to protect marine habitats from seafloor dredging? Can a private-market approach solve household water contamination in low-income urban areas? 

These are some of the questions that Stanford faculty teams will be answering with support from the Stanford Woods Institute’s Environmental Venture Projects (EVPs) seed grant program and the recently launched Realizing Environmental Innovation Program (REIP).

Both grant programs were designed for faculty to work across disciplines to find solutions to some of today’s critical environmental and sustainability challenges. Through EVP, and now REIP, the Stanford Woods Institute has awarded more than $10 million in grants to 67 research teams working in more than 27 countries. These projects have garnered nearly $42 million in follow-on funding for collaborative research among experts from every school at Stanford.

“For more than a decade, the EVP seed grant program has helped kickstart interdisciplinary, often high-risk environmental research projects that have created solutions for people and the planet,” said Woods Co-Director and Senior Fellow Buzz Thompson (Law). “REIP grants will build off of the success of EVPs, helping bring the solutions to scale for adoption by private market, public policy and individual stakeholders.”


The Stanford Woods Institute’s EVP seed grant program has spurred faculty collaborations that have addressed global environmental and sustainability challenges since 2004. Previous EVPs have been successful in identifying barriers to clean stove technology adoption in Bangladesh, ecological solutions to schistosomiasis in Africa, and environmental solutions to arsenic exposure in Southeast Asia.

The projects selected for funding in 2015 will receive grants totaling $880,000 during the next two years to tackle a broad range of issues. The EVPs were selected by an interdisciplinary faculty committee led by Woods Senior Fellows Jenna Davis (Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Jamie Jones (Anthropology).

The 2015 EVP grantees (lead principal investigators in bold):

Turbidity – a measurement of water clarity – is affected by the amount of particulate matter in water and is a key test of water quality. Measuring turbidity in estuaries like the San Francisco Bay is important because turbidity impacts light availability for the growth of algae, an important indicator of ecosystem health. This project proposes to develop an efficient and cost-effective methodology to measure turbidity using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles that will autonomously measure the spatial distribution of surface turbidity in San Francisco Bay. Researchers will collaborate with the San Francisco Estuary institute as part of the Regional Monitoring Program and Bay Nutrient Management Strategy that provide regulators and policy-makers data for effective Bay water quality management. 

Fishing practices that use gear that is dragged on the seafloor, such as bottom trawling, destroy and degrade marine habitats on continental shelves, the most productive areas of the global ocean. However, there has been little assessment of the outcomes of trawling restrictions, impeding progress towards solutions. This project will use ecological and economic models to examine the potential outcomes of a large-scale trawling ban in the Mediterranean Sea and will assess any implications for marine ecosystem function and services. This project provides a unique opportunity to contribute new knowledge and guidance in addressing issues related to bottom trawling, and holds promise to inform solutions in regions around the globe.

Growth in shellfish, marine finfish and seaweed production is being promoted aggressively in China to offset pressure on near-shore fisheries and to meet the country’s rising seafood demand. Researchers will develop integrated hydrodynamic, sediment transport, and ecological models to examine the potential impacts of large-scale mariculture (the use of pens, cages and drift lines for seafood production) on coastal processes and wild fisheries. With the direct involvement of leading aquaculture and marine scientists in China, the project aims to improve the siting and monitoring of coastal mariculture operations, and to provide policy guidance on intensive mariculture development that is compatible with the rehabilitation of wild fish stocks.

Groundwater provides up to two-thirds of California’s freshwater supply. Achieving sustainable groundwater management has significant economic, ecological and social consequences, which the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 aims to address. Previous work investigating natural resource decision-making has shown that more effective and sustainable solutions emerge when participants jointly grapple with and develop a shared understanding of data and problems. This project focuses on two tools critical to collaborative decision-making. First, researchers will examine the use of collaborative models as decision support tools that promote a shared understanding of the groundwater issues, starting assumptions, and possible solutions. Second, we will explore the value of acquiring data using geophysical methods to inform specific management decisions. The research team brings together experts from geophysics, collaborative modeling, and dispute management to investigate the role that shared learning has on more sustainable groundwater management in California.

While some important risks of climate change are now reasonably well-characterized, such as potential impacts on agricultural productivity, others remain poorly understood. Chief among these are the potential impacts of climate change on human health, especially among vulnerable populations. Researchers have long been interested in climate-health linkages, but work to date has focused on a few particular pathways (e.g. climate-induced changes in vector-borne disease) while excluding other potentially critical ways in which climate might affect health, such as effects on nutrient availability or the price of food. A recent review of the literature on climate change and disease risk highlights the state of this field and the scarcity of empirical evidence. Researchers will fill this gap through a series of empirical studies that will generate compelling evidence on climate-health linkages, inform policymakers of key risks and fruitful responses, and form a foundation for broader and timely research in this intersection.


The Stanford Woods Institute is building on the EVP program’s success with its companion Realizing Environmental Innovation Program (REIP). The program was launched last year in recognition of the class of research projects that are developed to the point that their research has scientifically identified a potential solution approach, but where the project team still needs to validate an implementation plan and engage external stakeholders. Woods created REIP to help promising research projects move from this critical junction toward realization.

This year’s projects – the first grants awarded from REIP – will receive $350,000 during the next two years to help bring promising solutions to scale. REIP grant recipients were selected by a committee of external reviewers, including Stanford Woods Institute Advisory Council members Matt Barger and Bill Price, the Nature Conservancy’s Wendy Pulling, and Chuck Holloway from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

The 2015 REIP projects:

The Lotus Water project, advised by Jenna Davis and Steve Luby, provides solutions for the more than 500 million people living in cities of the developing world who have piped water service but receive water that does not meet international standards for safety. Lotus Water envisions a new paradigm for water disinfection in low-income urban areas, one in which water treatment occurs automatically, at the point of collection. This approach to water treatment employs technologies that deliver high quality water on a reliable basis, with virtually no behavior change required on the part of users. By employing business strategies that target owners of shared water points in low-income urban areas, Lotus Water aims to provide reliable and affordable disinfection services for those communities most at risk of waterborne illness.

Communities throughout California are responding to the threats of rising sea levels, growing coastal populations and more damaging storms by building armoring concrete and metal structures that may threaten the continued existence of beaches, dunes, wetlands and other coastal habitats. This project's collaborative, interdisciplinary team composed of researchers from the Center for Ocean Solutions and the Natural Capital Project will work with planners throughout the state to inform and prioritize nature-based climate adaptation strategies. In collaboration with state-level coastal agency staff, the team will develop an online visualization tool that will identify priority sites where coastal habitats can best provide protection from coastal hazards and will then highlight policy pathways for implementing nature-based strategies. They will create and test a sustainable model of delivering, updating and maintaining the visualization tool for decision makers in California and beyond. Ultimately, the team aims to inform the implementation of sustainable and cost-effective alternatives to a concrete and metal-reinforced coastline, promoting the strategic use of natural habitats to protect people and property now and for future generations.

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