Kayaker Surveys Water Sheds

In the beginning every program to both restore and optimize the health of water sheds begins with carefully collecting a wide range of data and mapping that data.  In this endeavor, everything matters and should be reported.

This work is an example of what this process entails.  It can be done by school children with a little training and class room oversight.  The real trick is repetition.  A new set of eyes every year will see new things while confirming past observations.  In time we have a rich data set.

Otherwise we manage by exception which is at best disastrous as related impacts are not easily controlled and managed.  One relies on other’s good will and good sense and that can easily be wrong headed.  After all the pioneers in Ontario grabbed the rich bottom lands, only to watch them wash away after clearing them.  Hardly a bright beginning.

This one person’s work shows also how easily a simple program of observation and communication has a positive impact.

Kayaker checks up on river health

Nov 3, 2010

As any satellite picture shows, Earth has an abundance of water. But only 4% of this water is fresh, and three-quarters of that amount is frozen in polar icecaps. That leaves us with just 200,000 cubic kilometres of useable freshwater: less than 1% of Earth's total freshwater resource. Most of this available water is found in groundwater aquifers, rivers and lakes.

Looking after our freshwater resources is essential for human health, sustainable ecosystems and economic security. However, a growing global population, increasing industrialization and changing climate are all putting added pressure on Earth's most valuable resource.

One scientist who is actively working to protect freshwater resources is Monique Dubé, from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. She looks at ways to measure the health of rivers, tracks changes over time and communicates that information to the relevant people, sometimes developing remediation strategies or recommending technology and advising on ways of improving river health.

To do this Dubé literally immerses herself into the problem. This summer she kayaked 700 km of the Yukon River, which gives its name to Canada's Yukon territory. At regular intervals she assessed various indicator chemicals of water quality, along with water flow rates and an analysis of the species inhabiting that portion of the river. Using sophisticated Geographical Information Systems (GIS) she was also able to map where ecological zones changed and record all of her data as she went along.

"It allowed me to fully appreciate the river system," she told environmentalresearchweb. "I could interact with local people and communities and I could start to understand some of the history and legacy of the river."

Back at the turn of the 19th century the Yukon River was the principal means of transportation during the Klondike Gold Rush. Later it suffered from pollution sourced from military installations, agriculture, rubbish dumps and wastewater. But in recent decades the river has been well cared for and is generally considered to be in good health. However, Dubé discovered it wasn't as clean as she might have expected.

"Before I went I had a preconceived notion that this would be a pristine river," she said. "However, my measurements showed that there were still traces of DDT [the notorious pesticide last used to spray agricultural crops in the 1950s] and evidence of the organic chemicals associated with previous dumping by military facilities. I was surprised that we could still see the impacts of our actions from over 50 years ago."

Along with the Yukon, Dubé continues to use her "Cumulative Effects Assessment" on a multitude of Canada's rivers, monitoring the entire watershed to appreciate the greater picture and work out exactly what the stresses on any one system are. In many cases her work has led to a number of improvements, ranging from developing and recommending a new waste-product removal technology to pulp and paper mills, to suggesting remedial strategies, such as planting wetlands to help regulate river flow.

"I'm not a tree-hugger," says Dubé. "I understand that we need development to be economically viable, but we also need to be sustainable. So I work with industry to find sustainable solutions."

Now she is turning her attention further afield. Working with the United Nations on the Global Environmental Monitoring System (GEMS) Water Programme, she is taking her approach to 160 different countries worldwide.

About the author

Kate Ravilious is a contributing editor toenvironmentalresearchweb.

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