Restoring ecosystems, transforming lives

In areas of the world where local people rely on subsistence agriculture, ecosystem degradation can threaten the lives and resilience of the community. On China’s Loess Plateau in Linxia County, Gansu, this was exactly the case for some time. Though this area was once incredibly fertile, decades of farming and grazing resulted in desertification, erosion and landslides—communities eventually became caught in a cycle of degradation. When agricultural productivity slowed, an increase in poverty, disease and hunger ensued.

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A Conference about Water III: Perceptions of Water Use

Todd Rasmussen takes questions after his talk at the ESA Millennium Conference. Yesterday’s morning sessions at the ESA Millennium Conference on water and drought wrapped up the keynote talks and moved into posters showcasing social and ecological studies surrounding water use. Denise Fort, a professor of law at the University of New Mexico, gave an overview of water law and the tradeoffs that occur when ecosystem health is at odds with human demands.  She touched on an interesting case against the Endangered Species Act involving the fifth amendment, where landowners have made the case that laws affecting use of their land, such as using less water or changing their agricultural practices, is equivalent to the government “taking” their land. In these cases, she said, we need to figure out an appropriate compensation for these landowners, possibly in the form of ecosystem services. Fort also made a point that would come to be a recurring theme in conversations later on in the day: the use of the word drought.  She pointed out that in many cases, a social drought such as those that have affected the Southwest or the Southeast is actually not a meteorological drought, or one that includes an unprecedented water scarcity. Nevertheless, she said, managing water scarcities needs to have a large measure of adaptation. “We’re not likely to return to average or normal,” she said. “If we keep doing what we’ve been doing in the past, it’s extinction for many species.” Likewise, in his talk, Todd Rasmussen of the University of Georgia told the audience that in most other cultures, the concept of the “American Way of Life” is not translated into their language, but instead said in English.  This idea of water inequity is one of the foundational concepts of the conference, and one that will probably be explored more in the conference workshops. Lisa Welsh explains her research to Jason West at the ESA Millennium Conference poster session. The poster session was another lively event, with researchers presenting their work on water scarcity and mitigation efforts from around the world. Lisa Welsh of Utah State showcased her work on the perception of drought in the Bear River Basin in the West.  This basin feeds several divisions in different ways, and Welsh found that the divisions are good predictors of people’s attitudes toward their water. In divisions where water is traditionally abundant, people are not as worried and in many ways are more vulnerable, Welsh says.  But in water-scarce regions, the people are much more ready to deal with an impending drought. Stay tuned for a virtual tour of the Gwinnett Water Treatment Plant (seriously,...

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A Conference About Water, Part II: Drought and water issues on the big screen
Nov10

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 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 Pritchett 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...

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ESA Conference: Drought & environmental justice

The first conference in ESA’s Millennium Series begins on Monday at the University of Georgia in Athens. The conference, titled “Water-Ecosystem Services, Drought, and Environmental Justice,” will bring 100 scientists and land managers together to work on the resolution of social issues related to localized drought. The conference will focus on issues surrounding one of the biggest emerging environmental issues – water – and its relationship to human social structure. Although many areas experience periodic drought, the results of such drought often depend on an area’s government and policy, its infrastructure, and the behavior of its people. These factors can create differences in vulnerability to water shortages across communities with different racial, cultural and income profiles. The Millennium Conference aims to combine the knowledge of ecologists and social scientists to begin to address this issue of environmental justice. The Conference attendees will present 12 case studies on water shortages and their effect on societies throughout the world. In one study, an urban water shortage in Melbourne, Australia, led to a controversial infrastructure project to transfer water from a similarly water-stressed rural area to the city. In another, Michigan residents are fighting annual water bills as high as $10,000 and the potential privatization of their water resources. You can watch live streaming video of the plenary speakers on the Millennium Conference web site on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.  Videos about each of the case studies are available. Learn more about ESA’s Millennium...

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