A Conference About Water, Part II: Drought and water issues on the big screen

Yesterday afternoon at the ESA Millennium Conference on water-ecosystem services, drought, and environmental justice included a varied program of presentations, including two more plenary talks and a reception showcasing case studies on water-ecosystem services, presented in a manner very different for ecological science: in a session using videos that was reminiscent of a poster session.

Emily of XX takes a question after her talk.
Emily Bernhardt of Duke takes a question after her talk about sustaining freshwater ecosystems.

Wrapping up the day’s plenary talks were Roger Pulwarty of NOAA and Emily Bernhardt of Duke University. Both focused from different perspectives on the ever far-ranging issue of drought and the types of management that people use to ameliorate its effects. Pulwarty explored the issue of management implementation and identified a key issue with of dealing with drought. Although people  are good at identifying our own expectations for management of nature, he said, we’re not good at adapting those expectations based on new data. In some cases, he said, institutional inertia can harm a project.


“We shouldn’t be in the business of helping people do the wrong things more precisely,” he said.

In keeping with an emerging conference theme of managing at regional and local levels, he suggested the localized use of tools such as the National Integrated Drought Information System which, he says, provides a systematic collection and analysis of social, environmental and economic data focused on the impacts of drought.

Emily Bernhardt of Duke University then gave a thoughtful review of the baseline definitions of drought and its related issues. She made the astute point that in many cases, the synergistic effects of drought and other factors are more devastating than the drought itself. She also commented that, unlike many people’s perceptions, the biggest problem exacerbating droughts is not in fact climate

Daniel Prtichett of the California Native Plant Society explains his work at the case study presentations.
Daniel Prtichett of the California Native Plant Society explains his work at the case study presentations.

change, but simple human population expansion.  The only way to truly help stave off severe droughts like those in the American Southeast and Southwest, she said, is for people to limit their water consumption.

The day ended on a boisterous note, with the 100 or so scientists at this conference gathering for food, drink and case study presentations. The 10 case studies were presented concurrently, five at a time, for an hour each.  Although the video presentations were sometimes hard to hear, the presenters made do by narrating their video and taking questions from the surrounding crowd, making it something like an interactive poster session.

Daniel Pritchett talked to me at length about his case study on the ever-famous struggle between the Owens Valley and Los Angeles.  The city’s historic pumping of water from the northern California valley between the Sierra Nevada and White Mountains turned the once-green valley into a scrub desert. In 1991 a water agreement was reached between Inyo County in the Owens Valley and the city of Los Angeles, but Pritchett showed in his case study that too many exemptions for fisheries and other expenditures are being allowed that fall outside the recommended protocols.

“Some of the wells in the agreement are being exempted and can be on all the time,” he said. “There are 70,000 acre-feet that you can pump within the agreement, but they’ve exempted another 60,000 acre-feet. So these management protocols just aren’t adequate.”

Kurt Fausch of Colorado State looks on while attendees at the conference watch his case study video on fish biodiversity in the Great Plains.
Kurt Fausch of Colorado State looks on while attendees at the conference watch his case study video on fish biodiversity in the Great Plains.

Pritchett’s video showed photos of lands that have been managed with and without exemptions. Areas with exemptions have converted from grassland into sage desert because of lack of groundwater, whereas those managed under the protocol have retained and even expanded their grasslands.

Other case studies included an intensive engineering and community effort to save water in Florida’s Lake Okeechobee during a recent drought, a Peruvian Andes community that is trying to deal with a retreating glacier and its subsequent removal of water resources, and the reduction of biodiversity in Great Plains freshwater ecosystems based on groundwater pumping. Read the full list of case studies and see their videos here.

Today: two more talks by Denise Fort and Todd Rasmussen, and then some (potentially very wet) field trips in the afternoon!

Author: Christine Buckley

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