Category: Freshwater

Long Island’s Elephant in the Room: Nitrogen Pollution

“How about we initiate a ‘poop at work’ campaign?”

My colleague Carl was kidding about how to improve water quality on Long Island, but his joke went right to the heart of the problem. Many Long Island residents commute to New York City for work every day. Carl’s idea would solve the problem that we are grappling with on Long Island, as are many estuaries around the world: There is too much nitrogen in coastal waters and much of it is coming from inadequately treated human waste.

Social science research the Conservancy has carried out tells us that the average person living on Long Island cares deeply about clean water, whether it is to swim or fish in, or live near, or it is clean, freshwater we drink. Our social science research also tells us that the average Long Islander does not know:

  • where their drinking water comes from (answer: groundwater);
  • where their waste goes when they flush the toilet (answer: mostly septic systems, which are not designed to remove nitrogen, or sewage treatment plants in the more urbanized areas); and
  • that nitrogen from human waste, fertilizer and burning fossil fuels are polluting Long Island bays and harbors.

And if we do not tackle nitrogen and nutrient pollution on Long Island, our work could fail.

The Conservancy on Long Island has a long-standing marine program focused on estuarine restoration and coastal climate change resilience and adaptation. And by many counts we have been successful. We re-directed land acquisition to better protect estuaries. We acquired 13,500 acres of underwater land and transplanted over 7 million clams in over 100 sanctuaries. We supported science and policy to protect and restore seagrass, and we developed a network of monitoring sites to determine whether salt marshes are keeping pace with sea level rise.

Yet the ultimate success of all these projects hinges on nitrogen: Excessive nitrogen loading will impede our efforts over the long-term.

Why? Because regardless of the millions of hard clams returned to Great South Bay, it suffers from harmful algal blooms hampering the growth and adequate recruitment of bivalves. Regardless of the availability of land to which salt marsh can migrate, excessive nitrogen loading is a key driver of marsh loss. Regardless of successful passage of legislation we crafted to protect seagrass, science has found that impacts from excessive nitrogen and warming sea temperatures together inhibit seagrass growth and expansion even when physical impacts are limited.

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Fish and Chimps

Chimpanzees don’t eat fish. They don’t even swim. But at Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania, scientists have found that to save chimps, they must look underwater.

That’s because here, everything—people, fish, water, forest, and chimps—is interconnected. Attempting to conserve the apes without accounting for the health of the fishery that provides food and income for local people would doom these efforts.

Today, fish supplies are dwindling, villages are growing fast and chimps are getting squeezed into smaller and smaller forests.

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Results: Great News for Shad

Standing on the bow of the boat, Steve Herrington exuded the excited energy of a kid reeling in his first fish. Or perhaps a more scientific version of the Crocodile Hunter, bubbling with intensity. Net in hand, he scooped up shad — a migratory fish species — quickly examining them before passing them off to fellow researchers.

As covered in yesterday’s blog, last year I spent a day with Steve on Florida’s Apalachicola River looking at Alabama shad, a fish that researchers hoped would benefit by a practice known as conservation locking—basically allowing fish to pass through dams by using the same lock system that enables ships to pass.

Herrington was then director of freshwater programs for The Nature Conservancy’s Florida program (he now holds the same position with Missouri). At the time, conservation locking on the Apalachicola seemed to hold great promise for shad, a migratory species. He estimated that conservation locking could result in a returning population of 60,000 to 75,000 shad, indicating a steady increase.

Fast forward a year later. Herrington is on the phone, and that same infectious enthusiasm is literally bubbling over. “Great news!” he exclaims.

And indeed, his research has yielded surprising results. Those initial estimates of 60,000 shad? Way low. Estimates now showed a 122,000 fish increase, with as many as 280,000 total shad now in the system.

“We can now confidently say that conservation locking works, and we’re seeing a substantial bump in the population,” Herrington says. “I don’t know that there are any other data out there that so convincingly demonstrates such effectiveness.”

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A Lock Holds the Key to Restoring Migratory Fish

Author’s Note: This blog originally ran a year ago, following time afield with shad researchers on Florida’s Apalachicola River. Recently, the researchers released new information with some exciting new results on Alabama shad restoration. This blog provides the background information on the project. Check back tomorrow for a look at the results of this project, which is making a big difference in migratory fish conservation.

Take PVC pipe. Attach to a home water pump. Add water.

It’s a simple recipe, but one that might be enough to help move millions of the migratory fish species known as Alabama shad over dams, so they can spawn in rivers throughout the southeastern United States. For millions of dollars less than conventional methods. With potentially big gains for sport fisheries in those rivers.

“It’s low cost, low risk and low tech,” says Steve Herrington, director of freshwater conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “You can buy any of the basic equipment at Home Depot. And we have the science to back it up.”

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Research Results: If You Restore It, Will Pike Come?

It’s well known that some migratory fish species, like salmon, are able to trace their way back to the stream where they were born. However, conservationists have no idea if this is the case for hundreds of other fish species.

Do pike return to spawn in the streams where they were born, a la salmon?

Not necessarily, at least in the Green Bay watershed. If there’s suitable habitat, pike will find it and spawn. That’s the central finding of research conducted by the University of Wisconsin’s Pete McIntyre and Dan Oele.

This result may sound like a let-down, but in reality it’s a relief for conservationists in the Green Bay area. The Nature Conservancy and other conservation groups are focused on restoring streams for pike and other fish, but the best methods to accomplish that goal remain uncertain. If pike returned to their natal streams to spawn, they may never find a restored stream even if it contained suitable habitat.

That’s not the case, which is good news for conservation efforts.

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Kareiva: Vanishing Soils, the World’s Dirty Secret

We talk a lot about the biodiversity crisis, the energy crisis, the water crisis, the climate crisis, the food crisis, deforestation and so on. But what about the soil crisis?

Today, around the world the mean rate of soil loss is roughly ten times the rate at which soil is replenished. In some countries such as China, the rate of soil loss can be as high as 50 times greater than replenishment.

It is hard to imagine a better indicator of our failure to achieve sustainability. What could be more fundamental than the soil that grows the plants from which 99% of humankind’s calorie intake is derived?

From a biodiversity and conservation perspective, this soil loss also impinges on many of our more traditional concerns. It represents nutrient and sediment flow into our rivers and estuaries, to the detriment of fisheries.

Conservation has many narratives of profligate humanity soiling their nest and creating some sort of eco-catastrophe. Often those narratives are overstated and excessive.

But in the case of soil, the doom-and-gloom has some merit. Some historians have examined the arc of human history as a series of civilizations bankrupting their soils.

And it is not just data and science. If you have gardened and felt the comfort and seduction of warm, fertile soil in your hands, you know how primal is the link between people and soil. When someone back in the recesses of time coined the term “Mother Earth,” I have to believe she or he was thinking of warm soil.

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Notes from Silver Creek: Computer Modeling for Stream Conservation

What effects will land use changes have on a stream and its wildlife? How do conservation managers know what will happen in a stream when a restoration project takes place? Will it really lower water temperatures? Will fish thrive?

Surely conservationists can’t see into the future? 

Actually, stream managers now use sophisticated computer modeling to predict the outcomes of their activities. These models allow them to see how planting native shrubs, for instance, will alter stream flows and water temperatures.

In 2010, The Nature Conservancy was contacted by Maria Loinaz, a PhD candidate  at the Technical University of Denmark and the University of Idaho.  She was interested in developing a hydrologic model of the Silver Creek watershed using software called MIKE SHE/Ecolab.

This software is changing the way stream managers engage in restoration. It incorporates data on both groundwater and surface water, including stream flow, precipitation, vegetation and soils to accurately predict the effects of a new activity on a stream.

Maria proposed using the MIKE SHE program to model the groundwater and surface water systems and use the EcoLab program to build a water temperature model. Together these would allow her to model what happens to stream temperatures when riparian buffers were planted or stream flows increased.  Maria also wanted to incorporate fish data to see whether she could model where, based on the hydrology and temperature, fish would thrive in the system.

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Forest Dilemmas

Too many deer. Logging one tree to save another. Beavers versus old growth. Welcome to forest conservation in the Anthropocene. Beginning Monday, July 21, join us for a provocative 5-part series exploring the full complexity facing forest conservation in the eastern United States.

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