For two decades, Douglas Norton has been leading projects to protect the nation’s rivers, streams and lakes, working with states to improve water quality and finding ways to make information available to educate and engage citizens about the condition of their local waterways.
Most recently, Norton, a scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), led the creation and implementation of a mobile-friendly website called How’s My Waterway that provides public access to data on thousands of waterways and the health of watersheds across the country.
“We were struggling to increase the public’s awareness of the status of their local waterways, and with the advent of computer and smartphone apps, we started thinking about opportunities to get this information in front of folks,” said John Goodin, chief of EPA’s watershed branch. “Doug grabbed hold of this concept and really was the driver behind connecting all of the right people to make this work.”
Norton also developed the Watershed Academy, an online EPA platform that provides web-based training and live webcasts conducted by expert instructors on a number of topics, including low-impact development, the Clean Water Act and watershed protection and management. The audience for these online tutorials has ranged from interested citizens and college students to professionals working in the field, and engaged thousands of people worldwide since it was launched 19 years ago.
In addition, Norton created the EPA’s Recovery Potential Screening website, which provides a systematic approach for comparing watersheds and identifying differences in how well they may respond to restoration. The web tool was developed to help states reduce pollution in impaired waters with regard to their Clean Water Act obligations, but can be applied to a wide range of other watershed activities as well.
“In some of my projects, I hope to help people better understand the condition of the environment and the benefits we get from it when it’s healthy,” said Norton. “In others I hope to make it easier, faster and more efficient to restore waterways that need attention.”
Benita Best-Wong, director of the EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds, said Norton is a “can-do person” who uses the latest in science and technology to communicate with state environmental officials and the public to advance the cause of clean water.
“He can take an idea and turn it into something that works and that makes sense,” said Best-Wong.
How’s My Waterway, Norton’s latest project, was formally launched in October 2012 to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the landmark environmental law that includes a requirement for states to report information about waterway conditions to the EPA. Since its launch, the application has drawn tens of thousands of users.
Those seeking information via computer, smartphone or tablet can check on any location in the U.S. by entering a zip code or place name and quickly receive a list of waterways within about five miles of the search location. Information is provided on each waterway, and technical users can follow links to online scientific assessment reports.
In the past, the information on pollutants and restoration efforts had been stored only in databases that were hard for the public to access or understand.
Like other agencies, EPA officials said they face a constant challenge explaining how they serve the public interest. Norton’s colleagues say How’s My Waterway typifies his ability to make the agency’s work understandable.
“He has this tremendous technical depth, but he also thinks, ‘How can we use these tools?’” said Tom Wall, director of the EPA’s Assessment and Watershed Protection Division. “There are a lot of people who have good ideas. There are a lot of people who can build things. There aren’t many people who can think of an idea and then deliver.”
Michael Shapiro, an EPA deputy assistant administrator, said people instinctively care about their waterways, and this online tool developed by Norton “lets them know what assessments have been done and what the problems are, and helps them take initial steps to get involved in the process of restoring the water or protecting it.”
“One of the things we need in this country is involved citizenry to help localities make good decisions about managing their water resources, and just getting engaged in solving water problems. How’s My Waterway is an entry point for people,” said Shapiro.