A Conference about Water and Ecology

Nancy Grimm welcomes attendees to the first ESA Millennium Conference.

ESA’s first Millennium Conference kicked off today in Athens, GA. The meeting is bringing together ecologists and social scientists to engage in conversations about one of the most dramatic emerging challenges in ecology: that of clean water and water scarcity.  While ecologists’ main expertise is in providing and maintaining adequate water for healthy ecosystems, social scientists are expert in and concerned about scarce water and allocation across diverse communities.

The discussion this morning focused on several key issues associated with water conservation. Nancy Grimm was the president of ESA when the Millennium series was suggested, and she welcomed the group to the conference. In her opening remarks, she was the first to bring up the fact that for water reform and management to really take hold, it needs to occur at a regional level.  All-encompassing water legislation, even at state levels, can pit differing priorities against one another; since ecosystem services are largely delivered at regional scales, their legislation should be regional as well.

Ann Bartuska addresses a question during her talk about urban ecosystem services.

But Carol Couch, formerly chief of environmental protection in Georgia, made the point that a difficult challenge is to learn how to legislate water and water rights among political boundaries.  Since ecosystems know no political boundaries, local politicians must learn to work together.

“We need to explore systematically and synthetically how different societies throughout time have dealt with a common pool of resources, so it doesn’t devolve into the tragedy of the commons,” she said. “We need to start thinking about ecological services as a common pool.”

A major challenge, she also mentioned, will be considering water as a common-pool resource in areas, like Georgia, where most (96 percent!) of the land is privately owned. Bob Naiman of Washington University made the great comment that it would be nice to have an “opinions map” – one that showed which people over the landscape have what opinions about water and how it should be used. This could inform management strategies and ground-up community initiatives.

“We don’t need to convince people, we just need to speak in words they understand,” she said.”We could then spend less time advocating for a public campaign – but instead recruit people to work with us.”

A final theme of the first several talks was interdisciplinarity.  As co-chair Ted Gragson of UGA pointed out, we’re ready to practice what we’ve often preached about interdisciplinarity. No water problem will be solved by an ecologist or a social scientist alone, which is the whole reason for the conference.

Later this afternoon: Roger Pulwarty of NOAA talks about drought and adaptation under climate change, and Emily Bernhardt of Duke talks about freshwatrer ecosystems in an uncertain hydrologic future.