5th National Conference on Ecosystem Restoration

5th National Conference on Ecosystem Restoration

July 30, 2013, Chicago, IL

A Case for an Incremental Adaptive Management Approach to Ecosystem Restoration and Resiliency – Moving from Compliance-Driven Outputs to Stewardship-Driven Outcomes in the Mississippi River Basin

By: Patrick S. McGinnis, Senior Advisor, The Horinko Group

THG’s Senior Advisor for Water Resources, Pat McGinnis, was invited to participate in a panel at the 5th National Ecosystem Restoration Conference last month in Chicago.  The panel entitled, “Community Approaches Among Successful Regional Ecosystem Management Initiatives,” was moderated by colleague, Mark Gorman, Policy Analyst at the Northeast-Midwest Institute.  Due to an emergency dental procedure, Mr. McGinnis was forced to cancel his presentation, but has furnished his written remarks prepared in advance of the conference

I want to begin by reflecting on a piece that appeared ten years ago published by the American Society of Ecology entitled, “Sustaining Healthy Freshwater Systems.”

The authors tell us in our pursuit of water for cities, farms, and industry, we are largely ignoring or at least failing to adequately protect the benefits of water that remains in-stream to sustain healthy aquatic ecosystems.

They offer three observations, which I believe are still relevant to ecosystem restoration considerations today –

  • First, dynamic patterns of flow, within the natural range of variation will promote the integrity and sustainability of freshwater systems;
  • Second, aquatic ecosystems require that sediments, chemical and nutrient inputs, and plant and animal populations fluctuate within natural ranges, neither experiencing excessive swings beyond their natural ranges nor being held at constant levels; and,
  • Third, current piecemeal and consumption-oriented approaches to water policy cannot solve the problems confronting our increasingly degraded freshwater ecosystems.

To conclude, they leave us with six recommendations to begin more effectively addressing how water is viewed and managed –
1) Frame water management policies to explicitly incorporate freshwater ecosystem needs;

2) Define water resources to include watersheds, so that freshwaters are viewed within a landscape or ecosystem context;

3) Increase communication and education across disciplines to facilitate an integrated view of freshwater resources;

4) Increase restoration efforts using well-grounded ecological principles;

5) Maintain and protect remaining freshwater ecosystems that have high integrity; and,

6) Build recognition for society’s dependence on naturally functioning ecosystems.

I think their last recommendation to educate society regarding our dependence on healthy natural systems is still the one needing the most attention because, for me, it holds the most promise for informing a fact-based narrative on how we need to proceed.

These recommendations published in 2003 could have easily been published ten years earlier in 1993, and perhaps ten years before that.

So, here we are in 2013, some thirty years later, still struggling to make the socially relevant case for informed restoration and stewardship directed at achieving system resiliency.

As I look at where we are today, moving gradually from a top-down command and control model of governance and management to something perhaps not altogether bottom-up, I really have to wonder about our grassroots capacity.

Meanwhile the pursuit of green technology and a green economy may be shifting the popular case for greening to a business argument.  Revealing the business case for natural system resiliency may finally validate our dependence on natural systems.

For the remainder of my time, I want to reflect on where we’ve been, where we are, question a few assumptions that may still be holding us back, and offer a few recommendations on how we may make a greater impact.

My own lessons have been learned in the Mississippi River Basin, and I believe a number of programs and initiatives from the Mississippi Valley are instructive in how we may proceed.

Allow me to first pose a few questions for you to ponder as we proceed –

How do we strategically communicate the importance of resilient natural systems?

And, as we learn more about natural systems, how much attention must we as resource professionals also direct towards understanding people and communities so that we can reveal a socially-relevant context for restoration that people can and will embrace?

What are tangible results?

And, how do we proceed in a manner that not only achieves results, but utilizes those results to instruct and inform and make a clearer case for sustainable practices?

And, how do we de-mystify what is actually needed so that we can further empower the well intentioned?

As I reflect on where we have been, I know my own journey has been one of routinely challenging and testing old assumptions.  I think we have to continue to do so on several fronts.

Here are ten areas that I think are worthy of additional attention –

1) Local projects focused on improving local habitat serve a purpose, but we cannot let those efforts satisfy our desire to reclaim, rehabilitate, and to restore.  We need to better communicate the case for system-based processes to restore natural hydrology, reconnect floodplains, and improve water quality.

2) I often refer to compliance driven versus stewardship driven efforts.  My experience convinces me that too many outputs are compliance driven to offset or mitigate the negative impacts of some ‘higher’ use.  On the Mississippi River, navigation, flood control, agricultural production, industrial development, and urbanization have been the objective, while restoration too often has been reduced to the cost of doing business.  Stewarding the natural resources we depend on, and which livable communities are built on, can no longer be a cost of doing some other business.

I believe we need to change the narrative and reinterpret the programs and authorities we use to advance restoration to something more organic that is driven by a stewardship doctrine.

3) I also wonder how many restoration outputs are actually producing system outcomes.  Aggregating “one and off’ outputs and claiming some multiplier effect may be distracting us from moving to a truly integrated approach that incrementally tackles bigger challenges and produces outcomes not just outputs.

4) Ever since the signing of the floodplain management Executive Order in the late 1970s the overall effort has looked more like regulated floodplain development than floodplain management – again, compliance driven rather than stewardship driven.

National flood insurance reform is an indicator that we are becoming more aware of the social costs of floodplain development, but we still have a long ways to go.  This year many of us regionally are observing the 20th anniversary of the historic 1993 flood.  Here in the State of Illinois, since 1993, almost 4,000 repetitive loss structures have been purchased and the land converted to open space.  With that said, we still struggle to communicate and account for the externalized costs of floodplain encroachment.

We have federalized local flood protection, federalized flood insurance, and some federalized farm programs that are keeping too many of us in the 5% of the continental U.S. that is subject to recurrent flooding.  We have to look at all the costs associated with floodplain encroachment and make sure we aren’t incentivizing it.

5) Many are calling for improved river management.  However, in too many aquatic ecosystems, there simply is no river management period.  There are programs that influence a river’s condition, but most are not directed at comprehensive system management.

In the case of the Upper Mississippi River System, managing flows to support navigation or to attenuate flooding, while also attempting to augment shoreline vegetation with seasonal draw downs within the constraints of existing navigational pool regulation, does not somehow add up to management.

So, when we call for improved management, what I hope and believe we are really seeking is to actually begin management or stewardship.  We cannot simply push funds into existing programs that influence the river only to find that balanced river management does not enjoy the status and funding of other agency priorities and therefore remains a compliance driven afterthought or cost of pursuing some other purpose.

6) Turning attention to the grassroots or community level, living next to a river, gulf, bay, lake, or wetland has a direct and profound influence on nearby communities.  These communities tend to have a greater and more visceral sense of their place in the watershed.  These gateway communities can be a starting place to build a stewardship ethic in watersheds but they have to be engaged and their capacity to add value strengthened.

7) On the matter of community empowerment, community colleges are locally relevant and trusted institutions and can serve as portals into local communities.  Positioning community colleges to team with land grant universities in order to programmatically bring the benefits of land grants more deeply and beneficially into communities could prove timely and a new expression of extension that could better inform how we relate to natural systems.

Along the length of the Mississippi Valley, nine community colleges are working with land grants and the American Association of Community Colleges to scope out how they may better address challenges like workforce training, green technology, deployment of STEM initiatives, and advancing jobs initiatives.  In this particular instance, the river is revealed as an organizing principle for regional economic recovery and guiding sustainable development.

In too many places, regional and local development still suffers a lack of a planned-for approach.  Many small and mid-sized communities are not equipped or resourced to do effective planning.  In many places, planning staffs are being eliminated.  This same lack of planning capacity confounds stewardship of our natural resources and communities.  We still respond too often in a knee-jerk fashion to new development that promises jobs and local tax revenue, without thoughtfully considering the externalized costs.

8) Staying with the empowerment theme, I want to mention the power of an incremental approach as a learning tool and its link to adaptive management.  Too often, when I chat with colleagues regarding adaptive management, the discussion goes directly to the design and delivery of new projects instead of beginning with more effective management or stewardship of the existing condition and footprint.

In most of our freshwater ecosystems, we are dealing with a built-out environment.  The path ahead needs to be informed by our best science.  Adaptive management can make a place at the table for scientists in day-to-day operations, while also fostering relationships between research scientists, resource managers, and program managers.

An incremental approach also allows the swelling number of well-intentioned local and regional stakeholders to build capacity and learn how to do things beyond agreeing or disagreeing.  Learning to “do” is empowering.  Public involvement that engages, but does not inform, tends to see initiatives lose steam.  Well-intentioned will never replace well informed.  An incremental approach that applies adaptive management principles and processes allows all participants and those affected to learn along the way.

One area I believe we could demonstrate adaptive management early, and within existing authority on the Upper Mississippi River, is on federally managed public lands within the riparian corridor.

Recently, the Corps, in cooperation with other federal, state, and NGO partners, developed a Systemic Forest Stewardship Plan for the Upper Mississippi River that I believe presents a model for an inter-jurisdictional, inter-organizational approach to regional resource master planning to demonstrate, communicate, and guide stewardship of riparian lands in a planned-for incremental fashion.  This effort to integrate management on federal lands could then be integrated with conservation practices on adjacent private lands guided by compatible resource objectives arrived at by shared reach planning.

9) There is also the matter of low impact development, urban storm water management and nutrient management across rural landscapes.  No matter how much habitat we reclaim or improve, without water quality and water availability or supply squarely addressed as a priority driver, we may be reclaiming a house of cards.

The Chesapeake Bay experience in moving toward BMPs, TMDL allocations, and buffer management can offer many lessons learned to those of us here in the Midwest.

10) Lastly, I want to mention environmental education and what the next generation of environmental curricula might look like.  Giving students a systems context and appreciation of natural systems needs to become a part of our formal educational experience.  I believe students understanding the role, not simply the chemistry of biogeochemical cycles (carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen), can be an important foundation to their understanding of open and closed systems, and how resiliency is governed by process and replenishment.  As we embrace and promote STEM, hopefully we can utilize our natural systems as living classrooms to foster an in-context experience and connection to our natural resources.

Before I conclude, I want to quickly mention a few initiatives that are now underway in the Mississippi River Basin, that I believe hold great promise and are worth your attention.

  • Northeast-Midwest Institute administers the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI), which is bringing the Mayors of waterside communities, large and small, together along the length of the river to create an informed voice for the river. Currently 57 mayors are participating.  This effort is spot on in my view.
  • The Mississippi River Community College Consortium is launching a nine-school consortium to reposition community colleges along the Mississippi River corridor to more strategically address basin issues by revealing the linkage between the ecology and economy of the corridor in a more socially relevant and actionable way.
  • The Illinois Green Economy Network (IGEN) is a statewide effort here in Illinois involving over 40 community colleges that have committed themselves to advancing green careers, green campuses, green curriculum, and green communities in their service areas.
  • The National Great Rivers Research and Education Center (NGREC), established in 2001, is a freshwater research collaborative involving the University of Illinois, Illinois Natural History Survey, and Lewis & Clark Community College.  The program is studying the ecology of great rivers, while also attempting to call attention to water resource challenges.  Through aggressive outreach and technology transfer, NGRREC is better informing our water resource narrative with a fact-based dialogue.  Two years ago, the partners dedicated a 32,000 square foot, LEED Platinum Field Station, adjacent to the Mississippi River between the confluences of the Illinois and Missouri Rivers.  This institution is repositioning the State of Illinois to play a greater role as an emerging water research and technology hub.  In two weeks, NGRREC will enter into an MOU with the Mississippi River Commission to further advance collaboration with the Corps on several fronts.  One initiative that NGRREC and University of Illinois are involved in is called GREON and consists of a network of lightweight pontoon platform supported real time water quality and meteorological sampling and recording units being deployed at locations on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.
  • The Mississippi River Xchange (MRX) is another NGRREC initiative that involves a multi-state educational endeavor to give high school students a greater comprehension of their relationship to water, their local river reach, and a larger system context.  The immediate objective of the program is to deliver a comprehensive STEM-based river education program to high school students along the Mississippi River corridor.
  • As a cost-saving measure to reduce treatment costs and contain water rates, a number of private water companies and utilities are stepping up to bring more awareness to source protection and source control.  Some of these same companies are involved in buffer management and watershed management districts in other watersheds.   The Systemic Forest Management Plan for the Upper Mississippi River that I previously mentioned could have a complementary impact guiding an adaptive management approach to steward riparian buffers along the Upper Mississippi River.

Anyway, these are just a few efforts I see gaining traction.

To close, it seems to me that we have actually been on an incremental, but disconnected journey.  We need a course correction, an actionable foothold, and a better narrative to make real headway.  We need to become much more strategic in our thinking, our communications, and linking results to outcomes.  We need to push ourselves at a time when many are hunkering down due to budget constraints, an uncertain economy, and uncertain regulatory environment.

I think we have a lot of the right dots.  Perhaps, we simply need to strategically connect and communicate those dots, pursuing them incrementally.

Most of all, we need to begin today.