Application of Impact Analysis As a Decision-Making Tool in Water-Quality Monitoring Projects
By Eduardo J. Miles
It is common practice in a water-quality monitoring (WQM) project that negative impacts on the project are almost never considered during the project’s design phase and generally are addressed after the fact. Thus, a reactive decision-making process is applied. This approach has a number of disadvantages, primarily that addressing negative impacts after the fact can be very costly and can jeopardize the fulfillment of the monitoring and data quality objectives. To ensure achieving the project’s objectives, it would be beneficial to have a protocol to follow that evaluates and predicts the different impacts’ significance on the project’s objectives. Managing, controlling, or only understanding the effect of these impacts in a timely manner is necessary for the proper project execution, and critical for ensuring quality data.
This article discusses the great benefits that the impact analysis process (a process that it is used in environmental impact assessment) has to offer to the surface water quality community as the protocol to be used to evaluate and predict the negative impacts on the WQM project.
Impact Analysis Approach for WQM Projects
There are many definitions of what constitutes environmental impact assessment (EIA) (Glasson et al. 2005), but in essence the main objective of an environmental impact assessment is to assess, predict, and evaluate whether the execution of a project, a policy, or a program is likely to cause significant impacts on the environment (biological, physical, or socioeconomic) and then develop measurements to avoid, minimize, mitigate, or compensate for these impacts (Senécal et al. 1999, Sadler and McCabe 2002).
By applying impact analysis to a project, all the different activities that produce a negative impact on the environment and society can be easily identified, predicted, and assessed (Modak and Biswas, 1999). In addition, environmental impact assessment is an information-gathering (Sikoyo 1999) and decision-making tool (USEPA 1998a) that provides the management team with the necessary data to understand.
- All possible environmental implications of the proposed project and how to set priorities that will benefit the environment at an early stage of the project development (UNEP 1990)
- Major strengths and weaknesses of the different activities that will be performed in terms of their positive and negative effects on the environment (DOC 2008)
Among the different processes that make the structure of the EIA, impact analysis, and mitigation and impact management are considered to be critical processes and are sometimes referred as the technical heart of the EIA (Sadler and McCabe 2002).
|Figure 1. Impact analysis approach for WQM projects
|Figure 2. Possible human activities and environmental agents impacts on a surface WQM project
|Figure 3. Example of a fishbone diagram
|Figure 4. Impact classes and characteristics
Environmental impact assessment is commonly employed for projects where there are likely environmental consequences of the proposed activity, such as development projects (e.g., construction of a dam or a wastewater treatment plant) or projects that intervene in the natural resources, surroundings, and landscape (e.g., extraction of mineral resources, disposal of waste into a stream, or projects that have adverse impacts on endangered plant or animal species or critical environments) (OECD 1992). However, this tool has hardly ever been used in projects that are not likely to have negative impacts on the environment or society; for example, in monitoring (e.g., water-quality monitoring) or environmental enhancement (e.g., living shorelines) programs. In particular, in surface water quality monitoring projects, there has been no need or interest in applying impact analysis during project planning and execution, mainly due to the fact that these types of projects are designed to collect information in a passive way, and during their execution they do not generate impacts on the environment or society.
Nevertheless, it is well known the many advantages that can be obtained by adapting or applying models or concepts that have worked in one environment and applying them in another domain (Sloane 2003). This is the case for impact analysis in WQM projects; the tool can be adopted and adapted to improve the project management process, especially in terms of information-gathering and decision-making actions. To adopt this tool in WQM projects, the cause-and-effect relationship of the impacts to be analyzed must be modified as shown in Figure 1.
Any type of surface water-quality monitoring project interacts during its execution, directly or indirectly, with different agents of the environment (biological or physical) and with various types of human activities. Some of these agents and activities can produce negative impacts on the monitoring project that could jeopardize the fulfillment of the project’s objectives. For example, some of the human activities (direct or outcome) and environment agents that could produce negative impacts on a WQM project are shown in Figure 2.
Impact analysis is one of the best methods to identify, understand, and evaluate these impacts in a timely manner and address their effects to minimize their consequences on the project’s objectives. Some benefits that can be obtained from the application of the impact analysis process in a surface water-quality monitoring project are shown in Box 1.
WQM Project Impact Analysis
WQM projects go through a series of stages during their life cycles, starting with initial planning; followed by implementation, execution, and control; and ending with assessment (Stevens 2002). To ensure that all these stages can achieve their intended results in relation to the quality objectives, performance criteria, and decision-making requirements, monitoring teams must have an adequate quality-management system to ensure that:
- During the planning phase, all the project’s assumptions and requirements, sampling methods and procedures, and resources and constraints are identified, considered, and evaluated, and the appropriate WQM plan is established that ensures the data to be collected are of the appropriate type and quality for their intended use.
- During the implementation, execution, and control phase, the quality-assurance plan and the necessary standard operating procedures are established to ensure that the requirements for collecting the data are met.
- During the assessment phase, the necessary methods and procedures are in place to verify and validate the data (USEPA 2006).
Research has shown that most of the project’s life-cycle quality and cost are committed by the decisions taken by the end of the planning and design stages (Gibson et al. 2007). The planning phase is a critical success activity, given that during this stage the following elements are identified and defined: project requirements, performance criteria, sampling methods and analyses, data type, quality and quantity, spatial and temporal scope of the project, and schedule and resources (USEPA 2006).
An important step in the planning process is the identification of practical constraints, limitations, and interferences that could complicate the sampling activities and possibly affect the quality of the data (Cavanagh et al. 1997). Some of these negative impacts are relatively easy to address, and the necessary corrective or control measurements to minimize their effects are straightforward. However, there are many impacts for which the assessment is not so straightforward, and they require a proper evaluation and analysis procedure to adequately identify them and understand their full effects on the project. Monitoring teams employ different approaches to address these impacts, with application of expert knowledge possibly being one of the most commonly used approaches. Nevertheless, standard operating procedures (SOPs) are hardly ever used to ensure a systematic and comprehensive evaluation of these impacts. This accounts for the fact that impacts are overlooked or misinterpreted, or even that the best practices to manage them are not known, causing several problems in the capability to optimally fulfill the monitoring and data-quality objectives (Miles 2008).
Implementation of a SOP to address the significant negative impacts on the WQM project will ensure the quality and consistency of the assessment and the implementation of good monitoring practices to address and manage these impacts. The impact analysis process is an excellent tool to be used as the guideline to develop the SOP.
Furthermore, it a good practice to use a systematic approach to planning WQM projects (Ward et al. 1990). A systematic process commonly employed to perform the planning phase of a monitoring activity is the data quality objectives process (DQO) developed by EPA (Spooner and Mallard 2003). The DQO process consists of seven iterative steps; the first six steps are used to develop the data-collection design, while the seventh step combines all the information gathered in the previous steps and uses this information to decide what design solution would be most effective, and to identify the most resource-effective data-collection design. The impact analysis process is an excellent technique to apply when conducting the DQO process.
Basically, the process of impact analysis has three phases:
- Identification of the impacts to be assessed
- Prediction of the main characteristics of these impacts
- Evaluation of the implications of the impacts that cannot be mitigated (Sadler and McCabe 2002)
To accommodate these phases to a surface water-quality monitoring project, four specific activities are performed:
- List all relevant human activates and environmental agents that can have a negative impact on the WQM project.
- Identify WQM project aspects for each relevant human activity and environmental agent.
- Identify the WQM project impacts.
- Decision-making: Identify what type of measures, if any, will be applied to monitor, control, reduce, avoid, or offset the potential adverse effects of the impacts on the monitoring project.
List all relevant human activities and environmental agents that can have a negative impact on the WQM project. Human activities can be defined as a particular action or actions taken by people to produce or attain some specific outcome or to fulfill a need (Houben 2010). The human activities to be considered are not limited to field activities or activities that take place in the monitoring influence area (e.g., aerial application of pesticides). They can be related to any part of the monitoring project, such as training. An environmental agent is any biological (e.g., hydrilla verticillata) or physical (e.g., an unpredictable weather event such as a hurricane) component of the environment.
To identify, understand, or evaluate possible impacts on the WQM project, the first task is to identify major human activities and environmental agents that may interact with the monitoring process so as to cause an impact. There are several management or problem-solving tools that can be used to ensure that the major human activities and environmental agents are considered during the assessment. The most commonly used tools are brainstorming, checklists, matrices, cause-and-effect diagrams, dimensional analysis, flowcharts, and mind-mapping (Sadler and McCabe 2002, Canter 2008, Morris and Therivel 2009).
Commonly, these tools are applied in the information management procedure. The tools are designed by the impact analysis team to aid and facilitate information gathering, synthesis, and analysis for the particular project.
Identify WQM project aspects for each relevant human activity and environmental agent. Once the relevant human activities and environmental agents are determined, the WQM project aspects of each activity or agent must be identified. A WQM project aspect is any type of human activity or any environmental agent that can interact with the WQM project (based on the definition of environmental aspect (ISO 1996)). WQM project aspects can be thought of as the causes of the impacts; they are the elements of the human activities or environmental agents that can interact with the project and produce impacts. The relationship between aspects and impacts is largely one of cause and effect. Impacts are the effects or outcomes produced on the project by the aspects. For example, a WQM project aspect could be an increase in fresh water in the monitoring area by farm activity due to shoreline habitat destruction.
One of the easiest ways to identify WQM project aspects is to employ a process flow approach in the relevant activities (Block 1999). This procedure breaks down the process into its main parts and displays the interconnection and sequence of these parts on a flow diagram. A process flow diagram is a graphical representation of a process that delineates where each activity begins, transformation(s) that occur as part of the activity, and where the activity ends. Once the flow diagram is completed, each process and activity is examined to identify associated aspects (Block 1999).
The output of this step is a list of WQM project aspects that will be assessed to determine the type of impact (effect) that each one can have on the project objectives and data quality.
Identify the WQM Project Impacts.
A WQM project impact is any change to the project wholly or partially resulting from a human activity or an environment agent (based on the definition of environmental impact (ISO 1996)). The WQM project impacts can be seen as the effects produced by the project aspects (the causes).
To identify WQM project impacts, all changes in the project produced by a set of WQM project aspects must be categorized. This task requires that the monitoring team be able to determine and understand cause-effect relationships between the aspects and the project (COMNAP 1999). It is very likely that most of the people involved in designing the WQM project have expertise in a number of areas, but not in every area needed to identified and categorized impacts in a reliable and proficient way. In this matter, we can say that they are non-experts in the impact analysis area. Therefore, it is necessary to provide them with tools to standardize what can be a very subjective process, and to support their assessment and decision-making efforts as well.
In general, impact identification in a WQM project is a complex task given the lack of knowledge the evaluator may have on the nature and extend of the impacts, especially taking into consideration that impacts may be different in different environmental settings (Goncalves 1998). It is mainly for these reasons that there is no universal method that can be applied for project impact identification (Canter 1997a).
WQM impact analysis can be broken down into three overlapping phases: identification, prediction, and evaluation (Sadler and McCabe 2002).
There is a large range of management tools, methodologies, and techniques (general and specific) to enable a systematic approach to impact analysis and to support decision-making. Some of these tools are checklists, models, matrices, expert systems, and following guidelines, among many others (Canter 1997b). These tools do not provide specific answers to impact analysis; their objective is to organize, synthesize, and provide a certain structure for handling the huge amount of information that the evaluators must sometimes deal with (Lohani et al. 1997).
Identification of WQM project impacts. Commonly, a management tool is applied to aid impact identification and to ensure the undertaking of a systematic approach (Morgan 1998, Sadler and McCabe 2002). Among these tools, checklists, Leopold matrices, and cause-and-effect diagrams are frequently used. For example, a cause-and-effect analysis is a graphic management tool used to identify the relationship between effects and its causes (ReVelle 2004). One of the most common diagramming techniques employed is the fishbone diagram. The basic layout of the diagram is a fishbone- or fish-skeleton-like configuration (Figure 3), where the effect or problem to be investigated is placed at the end of the backbone, and the main causes are placed on what would be the ribs or branches angle-off of the backbone. Each of the main causes is further broken down into sub-causes, and each of the sub-causes, in turn, is further broken down into root causes. The smaller bones represent causes of the larger bones they are attached to (Joiner 1995).
Prediction of project impacts. Once all the WQM impacts have been identified, their characteristics (Figure 4) and potential dimension can be predicted. This step provides the necessary information to facilitate impact categorization and, subsequently, significance evaluation (Fanai 1996, Sadler and McCabe 2002). Identification of the potential dimension and forecast of the characteristics is a technical exercise that utilizes different types of data to estimate basic characteristics and parameters of the impacts. The most common parameters employed to describe impacts during impact prediction and decision-making include classes of project impacts (shown in Box 2) and characteristics of project impacts (Box 3) (Lohani et al. 1997, Sadler and McCabe 2002, Fisher and Stoughton 2003).
The estimation of these characteristics and parameters can be seen as a prediction of what would be the outcome of the aspect. There are many methods and techniques to predict and forecast the basic impacts’ characteristics, ranging from simple techniques (e.g., intuition, comparisons with similar events and projects, and checklists and matrices; in all of these techniques professional judgment must be employed) to experimental methods (physical models, field or laboratory experiments), mathematical models, and survey techniques (Munn 1979; Canter 1997a). One simple way to classify prediction methods is to divide them into quantitative, qualitative, and visual methods (Therivel 2006).
For water-quality monitoring (WQM) projects, the project complexity, size, and objectives will determine which methodology may be the most effective and efficient to determine or estimate the impacts’ characteristics. However, if one considers that most WQM projects operate with constraints in personnel, time, and money, the application of qualitative methods is a good alternative to obtain a quick and fairly decent characterization of most of the impacts. In addition
- Professional or expert judgment, previous experience, and scientific knowledge are commonly used in the decision-making process of WQM as well as to assess specific undesirable outcomes (Ongley 2000, USEPA 2002, Miles 2009).
- Qualitative methods can be used when there is little quantitative information, and the time and effort to implement qualitative methods is relative small compared to computer-based quantitative methods (Norton et al. 1988). In addition, professional judgment is generally employed when the data are conflicting and ambiguous or when assumptions must be developed to fill data gaps (USEPA 1998b).
- Qualitative methods that are considerably simple to use and are accessible for almost any monitoring team are the Delphi method, brainstorming, and analogous studies (Liu and Liptak 1997, USEPA 1998b).
Evaluation of impacts significance. It can be said that the most critical element of impact analysis is to determine whether the impacts will produce a significant effect on the monitoring project (Sadler 1996). The degree of significance will determine the course of action to follow. Some impacts will be considered significant and certain control or corrective measures will be required, while others may cause minimal or no effect on the monitoring objects and it may be decided that no further action is needed.
To define significance in a WQM project, it must be taken into account that first, there is not a universally agreeable definition of significance (Lawrence 2007), and second, professionals evaluate significance differently given that it depends on many factors, such as the context in which the impact would occur, intensity, and expert judgment, among many other things (Canter and Canty 1992, Sadler 1996). Significance in most WQM projects can be interpreted following the definition of Haug et al. (1984). First, significance in a WQM project would ultimately be based on professional and expert judgment. Second, the significance of a particular impact would depend on one or several thresholds (contingent upon the different project variables on which the impact has an effect), the degree of importance of each of these variables in the fulfillment of the project objectives, and the possibility that these thresholds are exceeded.
The evaluation of impact significance in WQM projects is highly site- and project-specific. The project team must define significance thresholds and criteria to address the degree of significance for each relevant impact depending on the project’s objectives. Decision-making is based on decision rules that the team must define to apply the criteria. Giving the nature of most WQM projects, this process is based highly on experience and professional judgment.
Decision-making. The ultimate objective of the application of impact analysis on a WQM project is to obtain the necessary information with regard to each relevant impact for decision-making. The decision-making process involves making decisions on the type of control, correction, or mitigation measures, if any, that will be applied to monitor, control, avoid, reduce, or offset the potential adverse effects of the impacts on the monitoring project.
Fischhoff (1990) affirms that a good decision depends “on a combination of good process and good outcomes,” and in environmental situations, judgment is commonly employed in the decision-making process. In order to support an effective decision-making process, tools to improve the quality of the judgment and appropriate methods of data presentation must be employed (Fischhoff 1990, Conboy et al. 2009). It must be remembered that data are not information (Wang et al. 2001). For data to become information, Green and Petre (1996) state that it must be presented in a usable format, and to facilitate effective decision-making, the format must be selected to communicate the information meaningfully (Bhatia 2005). Therefore, for an effective decision-making process, it is very important that an adequate methodology to organize and summarize the data is employed. Formats commonly used to present impact analysis data for decision-making are checklists and matrices (both in tabular formats) (Lohani et al., 1997).
Generally, the decision-making output can be subdivided in the following courses of action:
- Do nothing. This option is selected when the impact is considered positive or negligible; thus no further action is required.
- Follow up. This option is selected when the impact is considered not to be significant enough to take direct mitigation measures, but it is possible the significance could change if certain conditions are present. Therefore, the aspect is monitored to ensure its impacts do not become significant.
- Preventive measure. A measure taken to prevent or eliminate potential significant impacts before they occur. It also includes any action taken to reduce these impacts to acceptable levels. Preventive refers to impacts that haven’t yet occurred.
- Corrective measure. A measure taken to reduce or eliminate the adverse consequences of the impacts on the monitoring project.
- Compensatory measure. An action taken to compensate unavoidable adverse effects on the monitoring project.
In a well-known statement, Dr. H. James Harrington asserts “If you can’t measure it, you can’t understand it; if you can’t understand it, you can’t control it” (Fowler and Schmalzel 2004). In a similar statement Kaplan and Norton (2004) state “As you can’t manage what you can’t measure, you can’t measure what you can’t describe.”
In a WQM project, the impacts that will have a negative effect on the monitoring objectives must be understood; they must be described; and they must be measured, subjectively and/or objectively, in order to apply proactive decision-making. If not, the monitoring team will work in a reactive environment; they will have to improvise to deal with the emerging problems created by the impacts. Reacting to negative events, instead of having a plan to manage them, creates an inefficient and ineffective management process of the WQM project. In addition, in a reactive environment, a “pluralist decision-making environment” (Nerur et al. 2005) can be created due to the different experience, backgrounds, and understanding of the situation of the team members.
To prevent working in a reactive environment, impact analysis can be applied to develop the required plan for managing the negative impacts, thus creating the conditions for a proactive WQM project management process. In addition, this is a methodology that deals with the lack of systematicness in the evaluation impacts significance in most WQM projects.
It commonly known that decision-making is limited by available information (Simon 1955), but as Hatten and Hatten (1997) stated, for efficient decision-making “some information is better than none.” Thus, having a sound planning process will contribute to the understanding of how the project’s assumptions and proposed analyses will be conducted, and will ensure that the data to be collected are of the appropriate type and quality for their intended use.
Eduardo J. Miles is a marine scientist with the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration program managed by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
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