Dam good science? Searching for the human dimension in ecology

Chinle Wash, AZ

Chinle Wash, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, AZ. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Reynolds, 2005

By Lindsay Reynolds, PhD

The first seminar I took in grad school was taught by a senior ecologist and the topic of the seminar was very broad, something like “issues in ecology.” During one of our (no doubt) invigorating discussions, the professor commented that when he started out as an ecologist (thirty plus years ago), if you had any kind of human dimension to your research or studied human impacts on natural systems you were considered a hack. These days, you’re considered a hack if you don’t incorporate the human dimension, on some level, in your research.

Whether your study systems are influenced by recent changes in atmospheric carbon or annual cattle grazing, incorporating the human factor can be very challenging! And yet, it is absolutely essential in order for our ecology to be relevant.

Lost Man Creek, CO

Lost Man Creek, CO. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Reynolds, 2010.

Recently, I’ve been working on streams all over the western US and one big question I face is, how does one account for dams, diversions, and the myriad of other human impacts on streams, on a broad, landscape scale?

When studying stream ecology on a broad scale, which includes many different drainages and watersheds, each stream has its unique set of water management issues. Stream A might have an abandoned mine in its headwaters which affects water quality, Stream B passes through an agricultural area with dozens of farms and irrigation diversions, and Stream C has a huge hydroelectric dam on it. Each stream is managed for different goals, resulting in different flow regimes which affect the stream and riparian ecology- you guessed it! – differently.

So should we go stream-by-stream and do case studies of each one? Is there a way to generalize “water management” on a big (multi-state) scale?

Navajo Dam, San Juan River, New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Reynolds, 2008.

My current approach is an attempt to study relatively un-impacted, pristine streams to provide a template on which to overlay the water management of other streams. My thinking on this approach is that if I can answer some basic research questions on un-impacted streams across a landscape scale, this will give us valuable information that we can then translate to streams that have water management impacts.

Each stream has unique water management issues, and so each stream becomes its own case study. Case studies have value, but can we reach conclusions that have broader implications too? If we can suggest how a dam or diversion-impacted stream would behave under pristine conditions, we can then overlay the peculiarities of its water management conditions and learn a lot!

Is this the best approach? I’m not sure. Only time will really tell, but at least it’s a starting point.

How do YOU incorporate the human factor into your research?

Elwha River, WA

Elwha River, WA. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Reynolds, 2010.

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2 thoughts on “Dam good science? Searching for the human dimension in ecology

  1. Hi Lindsay. This is a question that I often think about myself – I do research on dam removal politics and ecological restoration. I agree that we need research on pristine systems in order to have something of a target for management elsewhere. But one of the challenges I see for restorationists is that a dammed stream (which is most of them) is also very likely to have other human uses built up around it – maybe there’s a hydro dam, but they built roads to it and the local fire crew draws from the reservoir, and people waterski there, and all of this confounds attempts to understand the ecology of the system and makes it difficult to piece out and analyze impacts. I tend to think that work on large but manageable multi-use watersheds (along the lines of the Yakima or the Rogue) might be a productive way to direct resources, since this work can feasibly be integrated and, perhaps, understood as a whole without being too specific to its own circumstances. This takes a lot of people and money…but so does everything else. What do you think?

  2. Hi Peter – Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You make a great point. I think working on pristine systems is a good first step and more feasible for small-funded projects. I think a next logical step is what you suggest: working on “large but manageable” watersheds, watersheds where we can, with moderate effort, realistically account for all the uses/impacts. Another take on that approach might be to model/study small stretches of more impacted rivers: accounting for the inputs/outputs on a 10 mile stretch of the South Platte River, for example. Looking at river systems in smaller, more manageable units certainly seems like an approach that could be scaled and translated to other systems as well.
    -Lindsay

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