2010 - Developing a physically-based and policy-relevant river classification scheme for sustainable water and ecosystem management decisions

Grant Award Year: 
Principal Investigator: 
Dr. Ellen Douglas
Research Description: 
An ecosystem is a dynamic complex of plant, animal, and microorganism communities and the nonliving environment, interacting as a functional unit. Humans derive benefits from the network of interactions among organisms and within and among ecosystems; these benefits are called ecosystem services. Human consumption of ecosystem services has been especially detrimental to river systems and their associated aquatic and riparian ecosystems. One of the biggest human impacts on rivers has resulted from the building of dams. There are 2,964 dams in the Massachusetts dam inventory database, most of which are low head, run-of-the-river dams that no longer serve the purpose for which they were built. The presence of these dams has fragmented aquatic and riparian ecosystems, impeded fish passage and generally impacted the natural ecological and hydrological functioning of the streams in which they reside. In many cases, dam removal is less costly than dam maintenance or upgrade, hence dam removal decisions tend to be based on purely monetary considerations, and the environmental costs or benefits associated with the dam are not fully considered. Furthermore, dam removal projects can be delayed or completely derailed by the perception that doing so will result in the loss of aesthetic, recreational and property values associated with the impoundment behind the dam. While dam removal is a high priority in Massachusetts as well as across New England, the true cost of these efforts, which include direct (economic), indirect (environmental) and cultural (recreation, aesthetic) costs, are not well understood and hence are usually not well quantified in dam removal decisions. The main challenge of water resource management is to find a balance between the use of resources as a basis for human livelihood and the protection and conservation of the resource to sustain its ecosystem functions and benefits. We propose to develop a physically-based and policy-relevant classification scheme for sustainable water and ecosystem management decisions. We will begin with an existing physically-based ecological classification system (such as the EPA Wadeable Stream Assessment; and the Least Altered Streamflows in Massachusetts) and expand upon it by factoring in political, economic and social indicators. One of the overall goals of this proposed project is to provide a framework for estimating the total ecosystem service value that any particular riverine habitat has to the humans and ecosystems that benefit from it. The overall outcome of this work will be a decision support framework that will be useful to environmental managers and policy-makers in assessing the degree to which ecosystems can or should be restored. Our ultimate goal is to provide a useful tool that identifies ecosystem service value from a multitude of human influences, but for the research proposed herein, we focus our approach on dam removal, which is important Abstract 1to the restoration of aquatic and riparian ecosystems and fish passage in New England. Our proposed framework will address the complexities involved in ecosystem restoration, multi-objective decision making and the allocation of limited state and local resources.