How’s Our Water Doing? Answering that Question in the Bayou State

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Published on October 11th, 2012  |  Discuss This Article  

Introduction by  Bryan Piazza, director of the Conservancy’s freshwater and marine work in Louisiana. 

Here are some recent newspaper headlines from Louisiana—no joke:

Bayou Boeuf Drying Up.” What??

Will Bayou Become Big Dusty?” This can’t be.

Natchitotches urges water conservation.” Are you kidding me?

“Aquifers in most parts of Louisiana declining, survey officials say.”

And the most incredible: “Drinking water in Baton Rouge may become scarce soon if the city doesn’t find a way to stop the saltwater intrusion.

Wait…in Louisiana? In the land of swamp pop? Crawfish boils? And one single swamp that’s bigger than Rhode Island? Is this possible?

Yes, it is.

Louisianans are quickly realizing two things. First, because of things like saltwater intrusion from a disappearing coast, prolonged and intense droughts from changing climate patterns, and increasing human demand, even our historically water-rich state might not be immune to water scarcity issues that are already touching our global neighbors. Next, even as our supply diminishes, we are still water rich compared to other places, and there are other states that want our water and are planning how to get it.

Like many places in the world, Louisiana needs a plan for how it will make decisions about water—because, like many places, Louisiana has no plan. In a place where water is the center of our culture, heritage and livelihoods, there is a tremendous need for comprehensive water policy that is rooted in strong science. We’re trying to answer that call at The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana by developing a thorough statewide assessment of the status and health of our watersheds and groundwater resources. Our goal is to work with partners to develop a strong scientific base from which freshwater decisions can be made and innovative solutions to future freshwater conflicts can be designed.

Building this scientific base is a massive task. It needs to do a number of tech-heavy things like: 1) examine the health of our watersheds, including changes in the landscape and the sinuosity of Louisiana’s bayous; 2) model trends in river flow, groundwater resources, and the interaction between the two; and 3) track changes in the biodiversity of fish and other aquatic species.

And all of this information needs to be packaged in both rigorous and easily digested formats and communicated to a variety of stakeholders and decision makers. To do a project like this takes a talented and dedicated team, with each member bringing a set of skills to the table. And with this much data to deal with, scientists are absolutely critical to this team.

But not just any scientists. It takes devoted, intelligent and brave scientists to wade into these waters. Micah Bennett—a Ph.D. student from Southern Illinois University and recipient of a prestigious NSF-IGERT fellowship—is just that kind of scientist. As a conservation intern with TNC in Louisiana, Micah has been diving deep into the data for the last several months, managing and analyzing large amounts of information and learning new skills along the way. Here is what a statewide freshwater assessment means from his perspective…

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Seeing the Big Picture on Water in Louisiana

By Micah Bennett

As I was introduced to the TNC Freshwater Assessment Team and sat in on the first meeting with one of our project partners, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, I began to see the big-picture—a state-wide look at how freshwater systems are doing—and I got excited. The opportunity to contribute to real conservation efforts, and the chance to work with one the most influential organizations in conservation science in the world—these are just dreams for most grad students in the life sciences.

But then I saw the data I was responsible for: the entire Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Inland Fisheries monitoring database had just landed on my desk. We’re talking about dozens of huge computer files full of data on freshwater fish and water chemistry measurements (representing hundreds of thousands of fish sampled at thousands of locations across Louisiana) that the agency had collected over the last 20 years.

These datasets were not only big, but they were all a big mess, the result of an export out of a bulky and antiquated database. My job was to clean this mess up—to get the data into a useable format so we could determine things like species diversity and abundance over time in different parts of the state. The twist?  I would be doing this with statistical software that I had never even seen before—not a point-and-click interface program, but one which I had to code in a computer language that I had also never seen before.  Now, I’m no computer novice, but I was certainly intimidated, intermittently spacing out in shock as Bryan showed me the data and outlined my task that first day.

Fast forward a few months, several set-backs, and hundreds of lines of code later to the finished product— or more like 40 finished products: two clean, simple files containing the abundance of the different species collected for each of those 20 years.

Today I realize not only how massive this type of assessment project is, but also the importance of a team to this kind of conservation science effort. It took me months to complete just one piece of a piece of the data management necessary for this project, and there is much more to be done not only to integrate my piece into the whole but to organize, manage, and project data from many other sources—fisheries and other aquatic organisms, water quality, landscape information, hydrology, river flow, groundwater, and so on.

And it is so important to note that this type of project wouldn’t be possible without one very critical set of team members—the state agency scientists that gather the data in standard ways over decades so that it can be used to assess things like fish population trends and watershed integrity.

In the Atchafalaya River alone, for instance, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has sampled fish populations thousands of times at more than two dozen (and sometimes more than 100) different sites per year since 1990. These tasks require thousands of person-hours, from sampling the fish to identifying them accurately to entering the data into a central database.

This same level of data collection and commitment is required for all the data that we are using to monitor watersheds, groundwater resources and other gauges of integrity. The old saying about child-rearing applies here: “It takes a village.” It literally takes a vast community of technicians, interns, managers, scientists and organizations to be able to accomplish what The Nature Conservancy’s Louisiana program is attempting in this statewide assessment; and it’s amazing to see it take shape and be a part of its formation.

Once completed, the Louisiana Freshwater Assessment system will provide information and decision support for resource managers, scientists, decision makers and politicians as they plan for the future of natural resource use in Louisiana. And by integrating this system with the Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico Restoration Decision Support Tool, we will be able to assess the effects of water use scenarios in our state on Louisiana’s coastal resources.

For example, we envision being able to provide information on the effects of water allocation proposals way upstream in the Sabine River on the salinity in Sabine Lake, an important coastal system in Louisiana and the location of the Gulf’s (and possibly the world’s) largest remaining natural oyster reef. We will also use the systems to generate a Louisiana freshwater atlas, so that decision-makers, legislators and stakeholders can quickly access information on the health of their watersheds, rivers, and aquifers by scanning a “freshwater dashboard.”

By allowing Louisianans to visualize the health of their own watersheds and groundwater resources, the freshwater assessment will engage them in insuring the future of their state’s fresh water. We hope that can be a headline in the very near future.

Micah Bennet is a Ph.D. student at Southern Illinois University and an intern with The Nature Conservancy.

(Image: The delta of the Atchafalaya River on the Gulf of Mexico. Source: Arthur Belala, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via Wikimedia Commons.)

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One Response to “How’s Our Water Doing? Answering that Question in the Bayou State”

  1. Johnny Armstrong says:

    Micah,
    Great job! Thank you for choosing conservation science as your mission. It’s the most important work that exists. And quality individuals, like you, give us hope for the future.

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