Study identifies a disconnect between science, policy, and implementation

Study identifies a disconnect between science, policy, and implementation — a recipe for missed freshwater conservation opportunities

Scientific methods for assessing ecological integrity have grown more sophisticated and reliable in recent decades; however, the integration of assessment results into management and conservation practices has not kept pace with these advances.

CSP’s Dave Theobald participated in a study, along with researchers from the University of Washington and Portland State University, that took a critical look at how assessments of ecological integrity are conducted — and whether they are indeed effective at meeting the goals of the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA). Ecological integrity, a cornerstone of this landmark environmental legislation, was intended to guide the management and conservation of wetlands, lakes, streams, riparian areas, and watersheds. The term describes the ability of an ecosystem to support and maintain ecological processes and a diverse community of organisms.

The research team found that assessment methods have changed significantly over the past 40 years in response to technological advancements. Scientists now rely less on field sampling and more on GIS and remote-sensing methods that emphasize landscape-level metrics and stressors — an approach that may not be appropriate at all scales, for all conditions. While this trend has been immensely beneficial in many ways, it presents issues that may have consequences for the continuity and defensibility of results.

Perhaps more importantly, the research team also found little evidence that modern ecological integrity assessments are targeting the most pressing conservation issues based on freshwater policies, stakeholder involvement, emerging threats, and conservation opportunities. They also note a disparity between the need for assessments to guide management policies and their availability. In order to narrow the knowledge-to-action gap, the team recommends designing assessments around specific freshwater policies and regulations.

Proportion of survey respondents who replied “Often” or “Very Often” with
respect to their need for assessments designed around five common assessment goals
(black bars), contrasted with how often those goals were achieved or represented across
all assessments reviewed (green bars).

Read more in “Past, present, and future of ecological integrity assessment for fresh waters,” published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.