Keeping our Freshwater Fresh: Ecosystem Management Tools

by | 2.14.2014 at 2:53pm
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By Christine Hirt

We have been harming our hard-earned water resources; is it too late to clean up our act? We know that our actions impact the health and vitality of ecosystems. Land development and poor ecological management practices sometimes cause extensive damage to important ecological systems. For example, management practices that negatively impact marine populations and freshwater ecosystems include the use of dams and culverts. Though these structures are beneficial to us in that they measure and decrease the amount of water flow and manage precipitation runoff, they can have adverse effects like hindering population habitats and migration. Maintaining our freshwater ecosystems is essential because humans are dependent upon them for a variety of ecosystem good and services, including drinking water, food, tourism, and recreation.

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Remaining section of aqueduct on the Neversink River, one river that provides NYC’s drinking water, near Cuddebackville, NY. Photo: Daniel Case, 2007

In Canadian Freshwater Biologist John Richardson’s recently published paper he stresses the importance of understanding the nine principles of ecology in order to more effectively and sustainably manage these kinds of ecosystems. Included in these nine principles are ecosystem limitations, population dynamics, and the importance of habitat availability.

Richardson states that each ecosystem has its own physical and chemical limits. The first step to preserving our ecosystems is acknowledging these limits as real indicators of potential harmful consequences. For example, one of the most identifiable limits for any specific ecosystem population is the size of the population.

Food chain and predator-prey relationships are incredibly nuanced and difficult to maintain once a population has grown either too small or too large. A dramatic fish population decrease could affect the trophic levels both above and below it, causing a chain effect that would negatively impact the entire food chain and ecosystem. Therefore, a good understanding of population dynamics and a constant watch on fish population is necessary to ensure at least the minimum number of fish necessary for population survival. Although human monitoring of these populations can be beneficial, too often impetuous human involvement has spelled out trouble for different ecosystems.

Humans have major anthropogenic impacts on ecosystems and their endemic populations, especially when it comes to population habitats. Not only is it important to make sure that there are available habitable areas for the various freshwater populations, but the quality and maintenance of these habitats are also critical. Although it is difficult for humans to grasp how our impacts on habitats today can affect many future generations of fish, we must be conscious of this fact. Consciously trying to manage a freshwater ecosystem in a way that is most beneficial to the populations, with sustainability in mind, is key.

Richardson also includes some tools for effectively managing freshwater ecosystems. He stresses the importance of first acknowledging and understanding the complexity of the ecosystem before implementing any sort of management effort that could affect the system in an unforeseen way. Communication and engagement with stakeholders and various levels of government allows for a successful management plan that ensures that everyone is involved and working effectively toward the same goal.

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Clean drinking water from a tap. Photo by Alex Anlicker, 2012.

Fortunately for many of us at Columbia University the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is in charge of supplying NYC residents with clean drinking water and collecting and treating the 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater produced daily, protecting the quality of the New York Harbor. The history of how New Yorkers get their clean drinking water, which travels about 125 miles through tunnels and aqueducts almost by the force of gravity alone, is emotional, controversial, and deeply rooted in the historical narrative of those living near the reservoirs.

Although New Yorkers are arguably extremely resilient, as seen with events like 9/11 or Super Storm Sandy, there is one environmental disaster which we would not be able to survive: having no access to clean water. Without the over one billion gallons of clean drinking water almost nine million NYC residents use daily, it would be impossible to live or work here in any capacity, halting the economy and forcing a mass exodus to wherever people could find access to clean water. The DEP takes extremely careful measures to make sure that when you turn the handle on your faucet, clean water comes flowing out.

Understanding the principles of ecology, efficient and thoughtful planning, and the implementation of safe management tools will aid in the preservation of the quality of New York’s freshwater ecosystems and help us maintain our drinking water heading into the future.

**For more information on how NYC gets it water and a great interactive learning experience check out the Tunnels, Toil, and Trouble: New York City’s Quest for Water and the Rondout-Neversink Story exhibit at the Time and the Valleys Museum in Grahamsville, N.Y.

Christine Hirt is the marketing and communications intern at the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability. She is majoring in environmental studies with a concentration in earth science at the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College. Her main interests include hydrology and coastal oceanography. She also loves drinking NYC’s water.

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