Category: Freshwater

Go with the Flow: Using Flow Experiments to Guide River Management

The recent news of a “pulse flow” in the Lower Colorado River has highlighted a steadily growing trend in freshwater conservation along “working” rivers – restoring elements of natural flow regimes. A new paper reviews such flow experiments and their effects on ecological restoration.

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Sustainable Hydropower: Are Small Dams Really Better for the Environment?

When it comes to dams, small is often considered beautiful. But should small hydropower projects get a free pass? Can such dams actually be tiny but terrible? Freshwater scientist Jeff Opperman takes a look at the realities of sustainable hydropower.

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Beyond the Power Struggle: The Science and Values of Sustainable Hydropower

Fighting dams is in the environmental movement’s DNA. But is it time to change? Freshwater scientist Jeff Opperman argues that science-based collaboration offers a better future for rivers and fish — and the people who depend on them.

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In a Remote Alaska Rainforest, a Tribe Protects Habitat and Restores Culture

On Prince of Wales Island in Alaska, the restoration of rivers goes hand-in-hand with the restoration of cultural traditions. Members of the Hydaburg Cooperative Association, a federally recognized indigenous tribe, are learning scientific techniques to monitor and assess salmon streams, streams that have been degraded over the decades. But that’s only part of the story: the Haida area also returning to cultural traditions, traditions even more imperiled than the streams.

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People of the Salmon: Haida Tribe Defends Salmon with Science in Alaska

The Haida community on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, have long considered themselves “people of the salmon.” They rely on the fish for their food and culture. Now community members are being trained to become scientists. Their assessments could help get their streams protected under Alaska state law.

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Weird Nature: Shrew-Eating Trout!

The story of rodent-eating trout at The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve has been one of our blog’s biggest hits. But those Silver Creek trout look like dainty eaters compared to this one. Meet the shrew-eating trout documented by researchers at Alaska’s Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. And how did this many small mammals end up in a trout’s stomach?

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Cool Green Scientist: Dayna Gross

The Conservancy’s conservation manager for the Silver Creek area in Idaho is a Jill-of-all-trades and a master of opposites, blending a love for art and science, of things big and small, of being active and sitting still. Meet Dayna.

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Dead Wood & Migrating Salmon: Restoring a Southeast Alaska Stream

A neat and tidy stream may look bucolic, even scenic. But for salmon it’s a dead end. On Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska, land managers once removed dead wood from streams to “clean” them. That action was based on assumption, not science. Salmon need dead wood. They need diversity. Now a restoration effort is putting the logs back into the stream, creating “fish condos” for salmon.

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Mekong (Blogging) Odyssey: Jeff Opperman’s New York Times Series

In January, Nature Conservancy Senior Freshwater Scientist Jeff Opperman took a 1,500-mile trip down the Mekong River in January with his wife, son and daughter — to explore one of the most amazing freshwater ecosystems on the planet, one that could be radically changed in the next two decades by hydropower development. But the trip turned out to be straightforward compared with blogging about it afterwards for The New York Times.

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New Study: How Cities Can Finally Get Smart About Water

If the definition of insanity is making the same mistakes over and over, then many cities have taken a certifiable approach to securing their water supplies — and they need some radical therapy before taking the big economic, ecological and human hits that come with a permanent state of thirst.

That’s the conclusion from a new study in the journal Water Policy, whose authors compared the water supply histories of 4 cities — San Diego, Phoenix, San Antonio and Adelaide, Australia. Among the lessons learned? Urban water conservation, recycling and desalination aren’t silver bullets. In fact, the best solution may lie upstream with farmers — saving just 5-10% of agricultural irrigation in upstream watersheds could satisfy a city’s entire water needs.

Brian Richter, a senior freshwater scientist at The Nature Conservancy and the study’s lead author, told me more about what cities need to do to say on the right side of dry.

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Scientific Illustration: More than Pretty Pictures

Scientific illustration is more than just pretty pictures — a point made quite clearly in my own work at the Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve, as we tried to convey restoration plans to the general public.

For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed painting flowers, insects, and landscapes. There is something so enjoyable about capturing colors and textures in paintings.

In the last ten years this hobby has expanded into my work: illustration has become key in how I view the world, understand conservation and communicate ideas.

Science has always relied on visual representation to convey key concepts. While representation has varied from Audubon’s bird paintings to high-tech GPS imagery, illustration has at is core always been about conveying information.

However, while we have inarguably made amazing advancements in information technology, high-tech does not always mean “easy to understand.”

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Bristol Bay Blog, Part 3: A Future for Salmon?

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a three-part blog series on the Conservancy’s recent research at Bristol Bay, conducted to provide a risk assessment of the proposed Pebble Mine.

Can one of the world’s largest mines be built in the headwaters of the world’s largest salmon fishery without disrupting the ecosystem?

That’s a question that generates a lot of controversy for the Bristol Bay watershed.

“There is a lot of vilification and name calling, but we wanted to go past that and get the data,” says Dave Albert, director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy in Alaska.

The Nature Conservancy in Alaska commissioned an ecological risk assessment to improve understanding of baseline conditions near the Pebble deposit as well as potential risks such a mine could pose to salmon.

The baseline studies showed that juvenile salmon are ubiquitous in headwaters near the Pebble deposit, including documentation of more than 100 miles of previously unknown salmon streams. It also documented the purity of the water. “This is about the cleanest water in the world,” says Albert. “It’s not distilled water, but it’s pretty darn close.”

The ecological risk assessment used a cutting-edge stream modeling system to investigate potential effects of large-scale mining facilities including open pit mines, a tailings impoundment and waste rock dumps on stream headwaters.

The model results indicate potential for significant negative effects, including up to 60 percent reduction in stream flows near the pit and contamination from waste rock that could exceed Alaska water quality standards. The giant waste rock piles generated by mining would require active pumping and water treatment; if these systems failed, the levels of copper in the river could rapidly exceed lethal levels for salmon.

According to the researchers: “Our study shows that while some of the flow and water quality changes brought about by mining could be ameliorated by ambitious mitigation measures and water management plans, severe water quality effects could result from even a brief failure of these systems.”

The proposed mine dwarfs all other mines in Alaska combined; because the ore exists in low concentrations preliminary designs developed by the mining company show the mine covering twenty square miles with a massive tailings impoundment. From preliminary information released by the company, this tailings pond would require perpetual mediation in an area known for active earthquakes.

“We haven’t seen a detailed mine and water management plan, but it would be difficult to envision a project of this scale that does not require active management, basically forever, to avoid contamination,” says Albert.

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Bristol Bay Blog, Part 2: The Salmon Portfolio

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part blog on the Conservancy’s recent research at Bristol Bay, conducted to provide a risk assessment of the proposed Pebble Mine. Yesterday’s blog covered background and research methods.

This is a land shaped by salmon—in ways large and small, apparent and obscure. Fly over Bristol Bay, and the impact of salmon is everywhere, in literally every living thing.

“Salmon built much of the Alaska we see today,” says Dave Albert, director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy in Alaska. “At historic levels of abundance, salmon are a fundamental driver of any ecological system they inhabit. They’re in the bears and the eagles and the trees and the berries and the people.”

Unlike at most salmon-producing regions of the world, at Bristol Bay scientists can still study a full and functioning salmon ecosystem. The sockeye salmon populations in this region are the most productive in the world. These stocks have contributed an estimated 51 percent of all global sockeye production since 1970. And there are four other salmon species found here as well.

The life history of salmon is well documented. Salmon are hatched in freshwater streams. After growing large enough to make the lengthy journey, they swim to the sea. In the ocean, they grow large while eating smaller fish.

After two to four years, they return to the stream of their birth, lay eggs that will become a new generation of salmon, and die. Their bodies become food for bears and a whole host of other scavengers. Bits of salmon flesh are gobbled by rainbow trout, char and other fish. They nourish algae in the water that provides food for aquatic insects that in turn become food for the next generation of salmon offspring.

“Salmon are in essence a nutrient-delivery system,” says Albert. “They bring nutrients from the rich marine environment to the nutrient-poor rivers and lakes, generation after generation.”

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Bristol Bay Blog, Part 1: Understanding Remote, Wild Waters

No fishing hyperbole: We caught something every other cast. At least.

Huge king salmon spawned in the river, but these were not the fish we were seeking. It was the fish following the king salmon. A host of species lined up downstream as the kings spawned, picking off eggs as they drifted past. We cast little beads that imitated the eggs and bam! Fish on!

Maybe it was a grayling or a large rainbow trout or a char. It didn’t matter: it was the greatest fishing of my life.

That was my first afternoon in the Bristol Bay watershed. The ensuing days there seemed like a parade of wonders: volcanic mountaintops, bears roaming lakeshores, hooking silver salmon in the rain, more rainbow trout and grayling and char.

Here’s the thing: We weren’t even there for the main event—the largest sockeye salmon runs on earth that taken together produce more sockeye salmon than the rest of the world. Combined.

Just last evening, we baked one of our Bristol Bay silver salmon fillets, and the memories came rushing back—memories of one of my finest adventures in a life filled with the pursuit of outdoor experiences around the globe.

And so I understand well the passion, the emotion, people feel for this place, especially when a gigantic mine is proposed right in the midst of it.

The Bristol Bay watershed is located in southwestern Alaska, a mind-bogglingly wild expanse of rivers and streams that covers 58,000 square miles. It has always been best known for its salmon population and the subsistence, commercial and recreational fisheries it supports.

Lately, though, Bristol Bay has received even broader attention, with the proposed mine most commonly known as the Pebble Mine. As it happens, Bristol Bay also sits atop the largest copper and gold deposit on earth. By most estimates, Pebble Mine would be the largest copper mine in North America and one of the largest in the world.

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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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