These local researchers helped develop software that will aid in wetland creation

NORFOLK — The Wetland Hydrogeology group at Old Dominion University, headed by Rich Whittecar, joined with researchers at Virginia Tech and the University of Kentucky to develop a revolutionary tool for creating freshwater wetlands.

Wetbud, a free software program, calculates everything from water flows; side-slopes; how much water evaporates, seeps and flows from a site; and typical weather patterns for dry, normal and wet years in any given location. It can even pull data about soil and topographic information.

Wetlands have been protected under the Clean Water Act since 1977 and are found throughout the United States. Once thought of as useless swamps, scientists now know they hold significant value.

“Wetlands are the ‘kidneys of the landscape,'” Whittecar said. “They provide habitat for critters and store flood waters during storms. When they are destroyed, the landscape loses the ability to take care of those things and we’re all the worse off.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. each year loses about 60,000 acres of wetlands, which can lead to increased flooding, extinction of species and decline in water quality.

Permission to destroy wetlands must come from the Army Corps of Engineers, which requires replacements to be built nearby.

“Often you have to build two acres for every one that you destroy,” Whittecar said. “So, many people end up with the need to build a new wetland that mitigates the effect of the old one they’ve destroyed for building purposes.”

That’s where Wetbud comes in. After determining a location for the proposed wetland, the program helps determine if the ground will stay wet enough throughout the year by pulling weather data sets compiled from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Before Wetbud, it could take months to tabulate information that can now be compiled within seconds.

“Wetbud calculates all of the factors to determine whether the ‘water budget’ maintains a soggy wetland during three types of years: dry, normal and wet,” Whittecar said.

“It’s like a checkbook. Water is going to run in and run out and you have to determine if the balance month to month is going to keep the ground soggy enough. Wetbud does all the calculations to determine that.”

The tool is so effective that the Army Corps of Engineers has approved it for use by its staff.

“We’ve been working on this project for eight years after a generous $1.5 million grant from Mike Rolband of Wetland Studies and Solutions, Inc.,” Whittecar said. “We are very grateful to him for his vision to create this. The tool is free for all to use. Mike wants to have a level playing field for everyone to do good, state-of-the-art calculations.”

As for the future of Wetbud, Whittecar said he’d like to see the tool used up and down the East Coast and beyond.

“It works for the state of Virginia very well because we have weather sets that are all ready to go, divided into sections. I’d like to see it used all across the eastern half of the country. It’s designed for a humid area,” he said. “If folks wanted to go ahead and make these preloaded weather sets for other areas of the country, that’d be great, too.”

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.