From the Mountains to the Sea: Where Is Freshwater Conservation in the SCB Agenda?


The Society for Conservation Biology's (SCB) meeting theme for this year, “From the Mountains to the Sea,” explicitly addresses linkages between land, fresh water, and sea. Recognizing these linkages is critical to achieving conservation goals in all but the most isolated ecosystems. Whether one is concerned with science, management, or policy, freshwater ecosystems and their associated watersheds provide important functional contexts for terrestrial conservation. Freshwater systems are also the link between terrestrial activities and many marine impacts. For example, the Great Barrier Reef is threatened by sediment, nutrient, and chemical runoff from the catchments draining into the lagoon between the land and the reef. Only an integrated program of land, freshwater, and marine research and management will adequately address the problem. If this is the case generally, how well are we doing at mainstreaming freshwater ecosystems and their watersheds into conservation research and management?

This year's meeting theme is a good step in the right direction for freshwater conservation. It is also encouraging that the SCB has a Freshwater Working Group, established in 2003, that is beginning to raise the profile of freshwater conservation within the society, including introducing freshwater issues into our emerging policy discussion. Yet a search of Conservation Biology reveals that from 2000 to 2007, only 6% of the articles focused on freshwater conservation. Are freshwater scientists and managers going elsewhere for their professional associations? How can we make the society and our products a top choice for them?

Considering that fresh water is one of world's most precious resources and that freshwater systems are among the most highly endangered, there seems to be inadequate attention given in the SCB to freshwater conservation. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment reported that freshwaters had the highest proportion of species threatened with extinction. The World Wide Fund for Nature's Living Planet Index shows that between 1970 and 2000 freshwater populations declined more rapidly than those on land or in the sea. Countrywide studies in the United States and Madagascar report far higher levels of endangerment for freshwater than for terrestrial biota. Extinction rates for North American freshwater fauna are projected to be 5 times higher than for terrestrial fauna, and over 50% of the freshwater fish endemic to Madagascar are threatened. Similar countrywide trends are documented for freshwater habitat—over 50% of the freshwater ecosystems associated with main rivers in South Africa are critically endangered, a proportion much higher than those reported for the country's terrestrial ecosystems.

The widespread degradation of freshwater ecosystems stems from two key attributes. First, fresh water is a critical human resource and the societal demand for water is extensive. This demand results in not only reduction in volume available to other species but also in impoundment, redistribution, and the use of rivers, lakes, and wetlands as waste repositories. Water is important to just about every service sector (e.g., health, industry, agriculture, environment, conservation, water provision, and mining). These sectors therefore need to contribute to effective management of water resources. Consequently, managing water resources and conserving freshwaters is a major governance challenge. It requires developing common purpose, policy integration, and strategy alignment across overlapping mandates, diverse disciplinary backgrounds, and sometimes conflicting concepts and policy contexts.

Second, the strong connectivity of freshwater ecosystems makes them particularly susceptible to impacts from upstream, downstream, and adjacent terrestrial landscapes. Four types of connectivity are pertinent here: longitudinal, lateral, vertical, and temporal. Longitudinal connectivity means that degrading activities in upper reaches of stream systems contribute to cumulative impacts downstream. Lateral connectivity means that land-use adjacent to freshwater ecosystems has direct and indirect impacts on them. Maintaining vertical connectivity between surface waters and contributing groundwater aquifers is essential for the long-term persistence of many freshwater ecosystems. Temporal connectivity refers to the availability of surface water over time, with flow regimes being of crucial importance. This strong connectivity demands a whole-basin approach to conservation, one in which water and land are managed in an integrated way that aims to achieve ecological and socioeconomic sustainability.

Is further degradation of freshwater systems inevitable? Or can SCB and our members, within the goals and objectives stated in our current strategic plan, help counter this undesirable trend? Horizontal integration of freshwater issues across our goals of advancing conservation science, management, policy, and education is lacking and needed. Likewise, vertical integration of freshwater considerations throughout our organizational structure from individual members to chapters, sections, and the international governing body is also needed.

Systematic conservation planning methodologies are relatively well advanced for terrestrial ecosystems, but generally have lagged for marine and freshwater ecosystems. Recent advances in the field of freshwater conservation planning have been made, and at least 3 international conservation organizations have published their proposed freshwater planning methodologies: the World Wide Fund for Nature, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Conservation Union. Their approaches apply concepts developed for terrestrial ecosystems and add refinements to make them more suitable to the freshwater realm. For example, increased emphasis is given to incorporating issues of connectivity, and the importance of restoration strategies for freshwaters is emphasized because of the limited options for conservation management that remain as a result of widespread degradation.

We can also draw guidance from several recommendations that have recently emanated from an international group of freshwater conservation specialists, the Skukuza Freshwater Group, named after the location in South Africa's Kruger National Park where they first met. These recommendations include broadening the way conservation priorities are defined, redefining freshwater protected areas, and improving long-term accountability for water decisions. Broadening the way conservation priorities are defined calls for the explicit incorporation of fresh water into conservation planning and management. Existing protected areas have limitations in conserving freshwater biodiversity, mainly because they rarely encompass whole-river systems. Their focus is also usually on the needs of terrestrial ecosystems and species. Park managers can improve the health of their freshwater ecosystems by expanding their conservation priorities to include processes and functions at the level of the river basin. For example, Kruger National Park was established 100 years ago to showcase the region's large animals, but when declining river flows into the park in recent decades became inadequate to supply water to those animals, park managers began working with land and water managers in upstream urban and agricultural areas to restore stream flows.

The second of the Skukuza Freshwater Group recommendations—redefining freshwater protected areas—requires developing mechanisms that allow for protection of freshwaters within the context of human use. Multiple land-use options within catchments should be provided that allow for varying levels of protection, including conservation of critical biodiversity areas, management of connected areas that support the health of these critical areas, and regulations that can be reasonably enforced across the entire basin without unduly limiting economic activity (e.g., protection of riparian zones and the most important headwater streams).

The Skukuza Freshwater Group also recommends that the socioeconomic costs and benefits of future infrastructure development—such as dams, diversions, or interbasin transfers—should be fully evaluated, and decision makers should be held accountable for their long-term impacts. This evaluation should include an assessment of the cost of restoring damaged ecosystems.

Incorporating these advances into collaborative, integrated planning that proactively considers the needs of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems will lead to efficiencies in planning and management within both watersheds and coastal management zones. Effective implementation of such integrated plans also demands the development of cooperative governance frameworks that promote coordinated conservation action of both land and water, often across subnational and national political boundaries. For example, the Murray-Darling River basin covers parts of 4 states in southeastern Australia, each with its own set of land- and water-management policies. After years of continuing decline in water quality and quantity, the federal government is funding a restoration program on the condition that the states agree to a set of basinwide management policies.

What can the SCB do to advance freshwater conservation? Many things. In implementing the strategic objectives for our conservation-science goal, we can identify freshwater topics as being among the conservation biology research priorities we periodically publish; build stronger relationships with freshwater-oriented scientific societies; urge increased collaboration among freshwater, terrestrial, marine, and social science researchers; communicate the resulting scientific information to managers, policy makers, NGOs, and governments; and disseminate more freshwater conservation science findings in our meetings, publications, and Web site.

In pursuit of our conservation management goal, we can produce a guide to fresh water best practices and facilitate symposia or organized discussions between managers and freshwater scientists during our meetings or in other fora.

Work on our policy goal can include elevating freshwater conservation to a high priority regionally and globally; producing a freshwater conservation position statement; building relationships with freshwater policy makers from outside the SCB; urging our organizational partners to include freshwater conservation science in their policy formulations; and facilitating a project that provides science-based solutions to a high-profile freshwater policy problem.

Our conservation education goal can be advanced by including freshwater conservation science in section and chapter education strategies and initiatives; integrating freshwater issues in continuing education and professional development opportunities that we provide at annual and regional meetings; and communicating the importance of freshwater conservation to our organizational partners in education.

Integrating fresh water into SCB's conservation science, management, policy, and education goals would be a tremendous advance toward meeting the many challenges to freshwater conservation. Such freshwater integration would also advance a 5th goal of the society, that “SCB is recognized as the world's leading authority in conservation science.” Meanwhile, we can all act on another of the Skukuza Group's recommendations: celebrate the remaining free-flowing rivers.