From the Field

Meet the NatureNet Fellows: Joanna Nelson

NatureNet Fellow Joanna Nelson surveys marsh vegetation.

Editor’s note: Nine young scientists — with specialties ranging from energy infrastructure to urban ecology, Kenyan pastoral techniques to nanotechnology — have been named as inaugural NatureNet Science Fellows, a Nature Conservancy partnership designed to help kick-start conservation toward addressing the challenges facing people and nature in the 21st century. In the coming weeks, we’ll be profiling each of the fellows on Cool Green Science. Learn how to apply for one of the 2014 Fellowships.

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

Water funds work. But could they work even better?

And how can water funds showcase the benefits of investing in “natural capital”?

That’s in part the focus of NatureNet Fellow Joanna Nelson, an ecologist with Stanford’s Natural Capital Project.

Water funds are investments made by water users to protect land and water upstream—benefiting both natural habitat and clean water.  Nelson is evaluating the effectiveness of these funds in achieving stated goals for water quality and quantity and biodiversity conservation.

“There’s a lot of well-founded enthusiasm around water funds,” says Nelson. “They offer additional examples demonstrating that nature can benefit a wide variety of people. But we don’t know yet how well water funds are providing what stakeholders are seeking and if we can quantify the track records of water funds, we build the case for societies prioritizing natural solutions for water security as they make choices for the future.”

Nelson will be conducting conservation impact assessments, gauging what conservation can really achieve for clean and ample water. She wants to compare that to the benefits provided by  infrastructure like water treatment plants and sediment traps, demonstrating the effectiveness of a mix of built and natural solutions.

“I want to find the full extent of what natural capital can provide for water security,” she says. “We need to find out just how much flood control and sediment removal we can achieve, and under what conditions, by protecting nature.”

Throughout her research career, Nelson has been interested in ecosystem functions and services under global change. “I love to make the connections between what happens upstream in a watershed to benefits received downstream,” she says. “It’s exciting to see how conserving existing forests, restoring vegetation along streams and fencing cattle from streams can enhance nature’s benefits in multiple ways, from restoring water quality and water availability throughout the year to additional services such as biodiversity preservation and carbon storage.”

Water funds, she believes, appeal to a lot of what might be called non-traditional conservationists: major bottling companies for water, soda and beer, farmers, power companies. “There are a lot of opportunities here,” she says.

But despite those opportunities, there are challenges. How can these water funds sustain themselves and continue into the future? How do conservationists scale up the benefits?

“We have examples of successful water funds, but there’s still a lot of missing knowledge, especially at larger scales,” she says. “I’m figuring out what information we need to make the best decisions, for the benefit of people and nature.”

Nelson is particularly enthusiastic about what she calls the “sweet spot” of research—the ability to conduct serious study while ensuring that the results translate into conservation results.  “My family did a great job getting me outdoors when I was a kid, in all kinds of weather, and later I taught wilderness leadership,” she says. “So I’ve always cared about land, air, water and people. Now I have the opportunity to take my academic background and apply it directly to conservation action.”

“I can appreciate all kinds of impulses for research,” she continues. “My fire in the belly is in research that provides the knowledge we need to be better stewards of the earth.”

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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