Meeting ecological and societal needs for freshwater

Ecological Applications

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Human society has used freshwater from rivers, lakes, groundwater, and wetlands for many different urban, agricultural, and industrial activities, but in doing so has overlooked its value in supporting ecosystems. Freshwater is vital to human life and societal well-being, and thus its utilization for consumption, irrigation, and transport has long taken precedence over other commodities and services provided by freshwater ecosystems. However, there is growing recognition that functionally intact and biologically complex aquatic ecosystems provide many economically valuable services and long-term benefits to society. The short-term benefits include ecosystem goods and services, such as food supply, flood control, purification of human and industrial wastes, and habitat for plant and animal life—and these are costly, if not impossible, to replace. Long-term benefits include the sustained provision of those goods and services, as well as the adaptive capacity of aquatic ecosystems to respond to future environmental alterations, such as climate change. Thus, maintenance of the processes and properties that support freshwater ecosystem integrity should be included in debates over sustainable water resource allocation.

The purpose of this report is to explain how the integrity of freshwater ecosystems depends upon adequate quantity, quality, timing, and temporal variability of water flow. Defining these requirements in a comprehensive but general manner provides a better foundation for their inclusion in current and future debates about allocation of water resources. In this way the needs of freshwater ecosystems can be legitimately recognized and addressed. We also recommend ways in which freshwater ecosystems can be protected, maintained, and restored.

Freshwater ecosystem structure and function are tightly linked to the watershed or catchment of which they are a part. Because riverine networks, lakes, wetlands, and their connecting groundwaters, are literally the “sinks” into which landscapes drain, they are greatly influenced by terrestrial processes, including many human uses or modifications of land and water. Freshwater ecosystems, whether lakes, wetlands, or rivers, have specific requirements in terms of quantity, quality, and seasonality of their water supplies. Sustainability normally requires these systems to fluctuate within a natural range of variation. Flow regime, sediment and organic matter inputs, thermal and light characteristics, chemical and nutrient characteristics, and biotic assemblages are fundamental defining attributes of freshwater ecosystems. These attributes impart relatively unique characteristics of productivity and biodiversity to each ecosystem. The natural range of variation in each of these attributes is critical to maintaining the integrity and dynamic potential of aquatic ecosystems; therefore, management should allow for dynamic change. Piecemeal approaches cannot solve the problems confronting freshwater ecosystems.

Scientific definitions of the requirements to protect and maintain aquatic ecosystems are necessary but insufficient for establishing the appropriate distribution between societal and ecosystem water needs. For scientific knowledge to be implemented science must be connected to a political agenda for sustainable development. We offer these recommendations as a beginning to redress how water is viewed and managed in the United States: (1) Frame national and regional water management policies to explicitly incorporate freshwater ecosystem needs, particularly those related to naturally variable flow regimes and to the linking of water quality with water quantity; (2) Define water resources to include watersheds, so that freshwaters are viewed within a landscape, or systems context; (3) Increase communication and education across disciplines, especially among engineers, hydrologists, economists, and ecologists to facilitate an integrated view of freshwater resources; (4) Increase restoration efforts, using well-grounded ecological principles as guidelines; (5) Maintain and protect the remaining freshwater ecosystems that have high integrity; and (6) Recognize the dependence of human society on naturally functioning ecosystems.

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Journal Article
Meeting ecological and societal needs for freshwater
Series title:
Ecological Applications
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Contributing office(s):
Fort Collins Science Center
14 p.
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