Nebraska Environmental Trust grants funding to host of SNR projects

A targeted conservation survey led by University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources assistant professor Andrew Little is one of many SNR projects funded by a Nebraska Environmental Trust grant. Photo courtesy Nebraska Pheasant Forever
A targeted conservation survey led by University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources assistant professor Andrew Little is one of many SNR projects funded by a Nebraska Environmental Trust grant. Photo courtesy Nebraska Pheasant Forever

The Nebraska Environmental Trust recently awarded 21 grants totaling over $1.9 million to University of Nebraska-Lincoln projects, including many housed at the School of Natural Resources.

The projects include:

The development of “StreamNet,” a user-friendly program designed to foster water quality improvements in Nebraska streams. The $491,726 grant was awarded to Jessica Corman, Assistant Professor of Limnology.

Corman wrote in the proposal that StreamNet is being built to better understand how, when, and where nutrients from agricultural production or urban areas enter Nebraska’s streams in an effort to better manage the state’s surface waters for recreation and public health purposes. When nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus collect in water, they stimulate the growth of algae and cyanobacteria, which can make bodies of water unattractive or even unhealthy. StreamNet is a novel network of high-frequency aquatic nutrient sensors with an easily accessible web application. Corman and her research team, in collaboration with the North Platte Natural Resource District, will pilot StreamNet in the Scottsbluff-Terrytown-Gering region where sensors will initially be placed in streams flowing through cropped, ranched and urban areas. Area stakeholders will also provide input that could shape StreamNet’s final, user-friendly design.

An effort to survey farmers about their willingness to participate in targeted conservation projects. The $104,971 grant was awarded to project lead Andrew Little, Assistant Professor of Landscape Ecology and Habitat Management.

In the proposal, Little wrote that agricultural producers in Nebraska have trended toward maximizing crop production by way of increasing field sizes, reducing crop diversity and removing non-crop habitat on farmland. Though farm productivity has increased in many instances, the process of devoting more land to fewer crop varieties leaves rural and urban residents susceptible to emerging environmental concerns (water pollution and soil erosion, for example) and economic uncertainties.

In an effort to mitigate those concerns, researchers have developed new precision technology and conservation planning frameworks that strategically target low-yielding acres for alternative management options while farming high-yielding acres in an effort to optimize agricultural production and natural resource conservation. To understand Nebraska farmers and farmland owners' willingness to participate in such targeting schemes, Little and his research team will identify key factors that facilitate or constrain their participation through socio-economic and behavioral surveys, focus groups and phone interviews. With this information, Nebraska conservation agencies and/or organizations can develop a coordinated effort to work with farmers and farmland owners to reduce environmental impacts while increasing whole-field profitability.

The creation of a statewide community tree canopy map. The $95,275 grant was awarded to project lead Yi Qu, UNL SNR spatial scientist.

Using publicly available U.S. Department of Agriculture Native Agriculture Imagery Program aerial photography data, Qi will lead a project that provides a low-cost, repeatable method to map tree canopies for Nebraska communities. Trees provide numerous environmental benefits, from improved air and water quality to wildlife habitats to stormwater runoff absorption. Mapping tree canopies can help provide both estimations of the environmental benefits of community trees, as well as early detection of invasive species, like the emerald ash borer.

The project will initially develop canopy classification methods and canopy maps for three pilot communities in Nebraska -- Lincoln, Waverly and South Sioux City. The project will eventually produce canopy maps for the pilot communities and develop repeatable cost-effective mapping methods, usable by any community in Nebraska.

The improvement of water quality and surveying of fish using eDNA in Nebraska. The $75,000 grant was awarded to project lead Mark Pegg, professor and fish ecologist.

It is not widely understood how extreme flooding impacts water quality and habitat availability in the rivers where flood events occurred. Do invasive species expand into new systems? Do changes in microbial communities increase threats to human and animal health? The project aims to build better understanding of the relationship between chemical and physical aspects of water quality and the corresponding biological response across Nebraska following the 2019 floods.

Pegg and UNL have partnered with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy on the project, which, thanks to samples collected monthly from 101 statewide sites, will feature an assessment of the microbial community and pathogen load, and the current extent of bighead and silver carp and of zebra and quagga mussels across the state.

This project will provide one of the first state-wide assessments of both the microbial community and invasive species in the country.

The delivery of watershed science education to decision-makers. The $71,751 grant was awarded to Troy Gilmore, assistant professor of groundwater hydrology.

Initially targeted to natural resources district board members, the project will assess water resource education efforts in Nebraska, develop a watershed science training program which utilizes online tools and facilitated education with UNL Extension educators and NRD staff and evaluation of the outcomes and impact of the program. The education program will eventually be shared with other adult stakeholders in Nebraska, including elected officials and water users.

The collaborative program involves the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts, individual NRDs, Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, Nebraska Department of Natural Resources and the University of Nebraska.

Expanding conservation capacity of the Nebraska Master Naturalist Program. The $49,179 grant was awarded to Dennis Ferraro, herpetologist and professor of practice

The Nebraska Master Naturalist Program, which began in 2009, now has 415 volunteer certified master naturalists who have contributed over 63,000 volunteer hours on 6,000 projects that benefit at-risk species conservation, restore native habitats, prevent degradation of waterways and improve waste management. Their efforts have saved natural resource agencies and organizations approximately $1.5 million. The goal of this project is to expand the MN Program, increasing the state’s number of certified master naturalists by 60, supporting at least 25 conservation organizations or agencies in the process. The project will also provide continued education for current master naturalists.

A project to continue to protect Nebraska’s terns and plovers and to mentor the next generation of caretakers. The $21,355 grant was awarded to Larkin Powell, professor in the School of Natural Resources. Mark Vrtiska, the newly hired coordinator for the Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership, will oversee the project.

The Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership balances the needs of Nebraska’s private citizens, property owners, industry and the declining bird populations that share spaces in the state with them. The TPCP team manages and monitors nesting sites found at sand and gravel mines, lakeshore housing developments and sandbars along the lower Platte, Loup and Elkhorn rivers to aid in the recovery and delisting of these birds. The unique feature of the NET grant was to provide continued mentoring for young conservation biologists through participation in the conservation program, which will guide them in their future efforts to work cooperatively for the benefit of species and people.

The Nebraska Legislature created the Nebraska Environmental Trust in 1992. Using revenue from the Nebraska Lottery, the Trust has provided over $328 million in grants to over 2,300 projects across the state. Anyone – citizens, organizations, communities, farmers and businesses – can apply for funding to protect habitat, improve water quality and establish recycling programs in Nebraska. The Nebraska Environmental Trust works to preserve, protect and restore our natural resources for future generations.

-Cory Matteson, SNR communications

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