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Carpe Diem – Seize the Carp

By Rick Black

Utah Lake is an 11,000 year old natural lake remnant of Lake Bonneville that has been modified by man into an operational water supply reservoir – the result of a dam built in 1872 at its natural outlet to the Jordan River in north Utah County. (USFWS, 2010). Historically and today, Utah Lake is the main source of water for the local population. However, today’s Utah Lake barely resembles the healthy ecosystem of the past – overrun by an introduced species, the Common carp. Utah Lake was essential for community and cultural development during the settlement of northern Utah. A thriving unaltered ecosystem supported millions of fish, a multitude of species of birds and animals thrived, as well as the surrounding habitats. (Carter, 2002).

Utah Lake satellite photo reveals the extent of water quality issues.  Photo courtesy of Wikepedia Commons

Satellite photo of Utah Lake reveals water quality concerns. Photo courtesy of Wikepedia Commons

The once pristine and calm lake began to change dramatically with the introduction of the Common carp (Cyprinus carpio) in the 1880s. The U.S. government introduced the carp as a replacement species due to the decline in native species from overfishing. The idea was to replace dwindling numbers of Bonneville cutthroat trout and provide locals with hardy fish that were popular in other areas of the world (Carter, 2002). However, the introduction of carp resulted in a loss of aquatic vegetation from foraging and increased sediment mobilization into the shallow water column. Before the carp were introduced, vegetation prevented lake bed sediments from stirring and plants (from single-celled to large plants) could photosynthesize in the clear water. With the introduction of the carp, nutrients previously sequestered in the sediment were more easily mobilized, creating hyper-nutritious conditions which favor the algal population. Higher algae concentrations increase the possibility for undesirable algal blooms and low oxygen conditions that could contribute to fish kills.

Photo Courtesy of ReelfishingUK

Carp swimming through dead vegetation and turbid water.
Photo Courtesy of ReelfishingUK.

Such conditions were detrimental to the native fish species and further favored the carp population. The water became more turbid from ‘rooting’ of the carp through the bottom sediments and this reduced photosynthesis, plants died and habitats for small fish and insects were lost, the lake transformed from a clear water state rich in biodiversity to one of turbid green dominated by carp. Furthermore, the impacts to the water quality and aquatic ecology were exacerbated by the use of the lake as a receiving body from agricultural, industrial, and municipal activities. From the 1890s to 1950s, raw sewage was also dumped into Utah Lake. Utah Lake became nearly abandoned by locals for recreation as the aesthetics and the water quality decreased.

Tractors remove millions of pounds of carp from beneath thick winter ice

Tractors remove millions of pounds of carp from beneath thick winter ice.
Photo courtesy of Deseret News.

In an effort to restore the lake, in about 2011 the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the Utah Lake Commission began removal of carp (over 13 million pounds to date). In 2013 they conducted an analysis of the removal of Common carp from Utah Lake.  Continued carp removal (need to remove 18 million additional pounds over three years) would require an investment of just over $5 million over the next 20 years (including maintenance costs).  (Ecosystem Valuation of continued carp Removal of Utah Lake” Utah DNR, Utah Lake Commission, March 2013) However, when compared to the value of the increased ecosystem services of carp removal, the results were staggering. Recreational fishing estimated benefits are expected to exceed $90 million discounted over twenty-years from services such as fishing, non-fishing recreation, property values and taxes. These estimated values only consider water quality improvements from carp removal and do not include other benefits that are part of the larger management plan for Utah Lake such as shoreline restoration and improvements to recreational trails, beaches, and other amenities. Also not included in the valuation analysis were: value of restoring T&E habitat for the endangered fish, the June Sucker, water quality improvements in the receiving bodies of the Jordan River and the Great Salt Lake and other ecosystem services that would be restored.

Millions more carp will need to be removed to restore Utah Lake to its former pristine environment. Photo courtesy of https://c1.staticflickr.com/7/6051/5881590283_45a1c23893_z.jpg

Millions more carp will need to be removed to restore Utah Lake to its former pristine environment.
Photo courtesy of USFWS Mountain Prarie.

Additional benefits from restoration of these services and local native shoreline vegetation restoration are likely to add significantly more benefits than what were estimated by simply removing 75% of the biomass of one bottom-feeding species, in a shallow fresh water lake. “If we get funding to finish this project, in the next three years we should see a different Utah lake out here,” said Chris Keleher, Deputy Director of Recovery Programs for the Department of Natural Resources. “This is by far and away the biggest project of this type that has ever occurred in the world — and if we’re successful then it’ll be something to be really proud of,” Keleher said.

Introduced species are a problem globally, they can significantly alter the once-pristine system into which they were introduced. They can have great impacts to the local populations who rely on the services derived from the healthy ecosystem. In Utah Lake, the removal has been successful for years, and the funding needed to complete the removal and manage the system is negligible in comparison to the values of the services restored. Utah Lake is a successful example of using the economics of an action to encourage moving forward with solutions.

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Great Ecology’s Utah Office Opens

Great Ecology is pleased to announce the opening of a new office in Salt Lake City, Utah—a strategic location to serve the needs of regional clients. Senior Ecologist and local expert, Rick Black, will direct our Salt Lake City business activities. Rick brings 25 years of consulting experience working with industry leaders in the energy, mining, and transportation sectors. In addition, he has experience supporting federal clients, including the Departments of Defense and Transportation. Rick’s expertise in threatened and endangered species biology, habitat ecology, and rangeland, wetlands, and riparian ecology complements the Great Ecology mission to apply science and design to deliver sustainable and innovative solutions.

Photo Courtesy of: Roseman University

Photo Courtesy of: Roseman University

Contact Rick to learn how Great Ecology and Rick can support your projects, and to find out more about our local initiatives in the Salt Lake City region.

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San Diego’s Fastest-Growing Private Companies Award

San Diego's Fastest-Growing Private CompaniesGreat Ecology is honored to be recognized as one of San Diego’s 2014 Fastest-Growing Private Companies by the San Diego Business Journal. This is the second time Great Ecology has been granted this prestigious award since opening our San Diego office in 2010. This year’s list was extremely competitive – the 100th ranking company had a three year growth rate of 44% and the top ranking firm with a growth rate of over 1000%. Great Ecology’s CEO, Dr. Mark Laska, is exceptionally honored to have made the esteemed list and to be recognized among an inspiring group of entrepreneurs and private companies in San Diego. He shares that winning this award for the second time is truly a testament to the company’s strong values and the paramount importance of the work that Great Ecology accomplishes.


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The Gowanus Canal: Ecology & Design Meet in Brooklyn’s Rust Belt

Molecular Biologists, Landscape Architects, and a Camera Crew Prepare to Enter Toxic  Waters. Photo Courtesy of: Joshua Johnson

The motley crew preparing to enter toxic waters.
Photo courtesy of Joshua Johnson.

By: Colleen Tuite

Late one June afternoon, a motley crew of ecologists, molecular biologists, landscape architects, and a camera crew gathered in a vacant area of South Brooklyn’s salt storage lot. There, we donned Tyvek suits and boots, sorted empty glass jars and plastic hazmat bags, fastened life preservers, and launched canoes into the toxic waters of the Gowanus Canal.

Originally a creek running through a saltwater marshland, industry began along the Gowanus in the mid-1600s, as mills were built there to take advantage of water power. In the 19th century, as industry grew the Gowanus Creek was dredged and the canal system constructed – a 1.8 mile waterway linking factories, warehouses, coal stores, and refineries to the Upper New York Bay. By World War I, the Gowanus was the busiest commercial canal in the country, and South Brooklyn a major for industrial production – and, simultaneously, industrial pollution.

"Brooklyn's Coolest Superfund Site." Photo Courtesy of Joshua Johnson

“Brooklyn’s Coolest Superfund Site.”
Photo courtesy of Joshua Johnson.

The Canal was designed and constructed to meet a budget – but at the expense of function. With no outflow system, the Canal cannot be flushed out, and over time it’s become a cesspool of industrial contaminants, sewage, and pathogens. By the 1950s industry along the canal began to wane, and the Canal was dredged one last time in 1955. Since then, the Gowanus Canal has essentially become an aquatic toxic time capsule – cement, oil, mercury, lead, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), and coal tar from its industrial past, plus emissions from the overhead Gowanus Expressway and raw sewage from the combined system overflow.

In 2009, the Canal was designated by the EPA as a Superfund site. Preliminary cleanup efforts began in 2013 and the Army Corp of Engineers plans to dredge and cap the canal in 2016. But what can we learn from the existing ecosystem?

Enquête Gowanus is a new initiative to study the Gowanus Canal’s invisible life, led by Ian Quate of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landcape Architects, in partnership with Gowanus Canal Conservancy (GCC), and GenSpace, a community biolab based in downtown Brooklyn.

A few weeks after we paddled around the Canal with jars of sludge, Ian and I met up on the Whole Foods rooftop which overlooks our sampling sites, and discussed his project and the future of the Gonwanus Canal.

How did Enquête Gowanus begin?

Collecting Biological Samples for DNA Analysis of Microorganisms in Gowanus Canal

Ian Quate leader of Enquete Gowanus.

Ian: Two years ago, I began volunteering with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and I worked with them on a number of landscape projects, mostly delineating storm water and CSO runoff into the Canal. Everyone was excited for the cleanup of the Canal, myself included, but it appeared that no one had actually tested to see what was living in the Canal.

So, I started digging around and asking folks at the multiple organizations involved if the water or sediment had been sampled for biological activity. And indeed, no one had really done any work, especially in the sediment. No one had ever looked at it biologically.

How did you get interested in the microbial habitat of the Canal? Why should we pay attention to bacteria?

Ian: There is no such thing as an environment that is inimical to life. Industrial pollutants, while they are in a refined state, along with everything else that we use, are products from the earth; it’s not as if we are importing stuff from space. And so as long as something is from the earth, there is going to be some little critter that loves eating it – which, in effect, can break harmful chemicals down and remove them from the environment.

Specifically, Enquête Gowanus is about looking at where life would accumulate in the Canal, and to taxonomically catalog and share this information. We identified 15 locations along the Canal – based on depth, light conditions, CSO outflow, and traffic such as dredging – to create a variation in samples. We took samples, and then processed the samples at the lab at GenSpace to extract genetic information from the soil.

Tyvek Suits and Thick Rubber Gloves Protect Crew as Samples are Collected for DNA Analysis. Photo Courtesy of: Joshua Johnson

Tyvek suits and thick rubber gloves protect crew as they search for new species.
Photo courtesy of Joshua Johnson.

What’s happens next?

Ian: All the samples are done and the DNA is preserved in freezers at GenSpace. The next step is to find the funding to have it sequenced. It’s a metagenomic sequencing, so we’re not looking at individual organisms, but rather what organisms exist in the whole ecology. Hopefully it will tell us what’s living in there and what they’re doing. This is the most exciting part of the project, as there is the potential for discovery – it’s an unstudied ecosystem, that’s been relatively stable for the past 50 years, and potentially there are new organisms and cell pathways that could be useful for industrial and hydrocarbon cleanups.

What’s unique about the Gowanus? How can the study and design of the Gowanus Canal become a model for other contaminated sites?

Ian: I’ve heard the neighborhood of Gowanus described as a Rust Belt in the middle of Brooklyn. It’s remained far more industrial than its surroundings because of the contaminated state of the Canal. However, it is a central waterfront property in Brooklyn, and this location makes the land extremely valuable. Once the Canal is cleaned up there is no question that the neighborhood will be rapidly developed.

The Product of Over Four Centuries of Industrial Waste. Photo Courtesy of: Joshua Johnson

The product of over 4 centuries of industrial waste.
Photo courtesy of Joshua Johnson.

But from the perspective of ecology, especially urban ecology and natural history, there are definitely some unique organisms living here. I think it’s worth imagining how it could be developed with pockets of these ecosystems left intact, as little organic laboratories within a larger cleanup effort. Fundamentally, it’s not good for people to live near the Canal – you can’t touch this water, you can’t have children around it; and ultimately it’s an unhealthy ecosystem in an urban center, and its needs to be cleaned up. But I think it’s worth entertaining an alternative route. In art conservation, when you restore a painting, you leave a swatch of it, so you can look at the original state, so there a visual comparison. In this case, it may be beneficial if some areas of the Gowanus were preserved, not so much for visual comparison, but for organic comparison.

To this end, at Nelson Byrd Woltz Landcape Architects we’re interested in making some sort of constructed intervention that talks about what’s going on here, especially with the knowledge that in two years the Canal will be dredged and capped, and it will become a different place. Where we are right now [the rooftop bar of Whole Foods, overlooking the canal] is indicative of that direction.

What opportunities have you found for scientists and designers to collaborate?

Ian: Scientists often have a different approach, and their ideas can be surprising for designers. I think it’s a good tradeoff. It’s been my experience, particularly with conservation biologists, is that they want to study biology in its current given state, and catalog that, and that’s it. And so I’ve found that the volition that designers bring to a project, and ask, for example, “Well, what kind of habitat does this ground nesting bird need?” and then we can provide that through designing and altering the environment to create more or less of a certain habitat. Scientists can look at a site, and make recommendations based on what the project goals are, ecologically, and the designer can manipulate the environment to make those habitats possible.

As we ride our bikes over the small bridge and out of Gowanus, it’s clear that the presence of the Canal has carved out a rare place in the city, for residents of all shapes and sizes – right down to single-celled organisms. Let’s hope that in the process of remediation, scientists and designers can work together to preserve and adapt its unique culture and ecology, while making the Gowanus safe once again.

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Invasive Species: Masters of Deception

By Erin Hathaway

Invasive species, a Colombian drug lord, and hippos are not commonly associated – that is until recently. As one the world’s top drug lords, Pablo Escobar used his wealth to create a personal zoo on his estate. At the end of his reign, officials dispersed many of the animals to other regional zoos but left a small herd of (4) hippos on the property, and no one thought twice.

Within 20 years Pablo Escobar's private zoo has turned into a herd of 60 hippos. Photo courtesy of Reuters

Within 20 years Pablo Escobar’s private zoo has turned into a herd of 60 hippos. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

Transported from Africa, the hippos thrived in the similar Colombian climate. Today, the growing herd is up to an estimated 60 hippos, after just 20 years, and moving into other bodies of water in the region. The country’s expansive waterways make it easy for the hippo population to spread across the country and without native predators their growth is uncontrolled. Not only are the hippos a threat to the native Colombian ecosystem, but they are also becoming a challenge to the community. In addition, many people claim to “adopt” baby hippos found in the wild without understanding that these animals grow to massive sizes and are known to kill humans.

Invasive species are a worldwide epidemic threatening ecosystems and costing billions of dollars to control. Like the story of Escobar’s Hippos we don’t realize the impact of our choices in the future. Most often people buy exotic species to have as pets but eventually release them into the wild when they can’t or don’t want to take care of them. This is the case for the largest snake in the world that now calls the Everglades home. The Burmese Python was and still is a popular exotic pet but are often released into the wild when the owners realize the snakes size and strength are too much to handle for a pet. The Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States and an ideal environment for the pythons. With similar conditions to the python’s native Asian climate, the species thrives. However, the python interrupts the Everglades ecosystem and competes with other top predators for food. Since 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent more than $6 million to control and attempt to eradicate this species and other large invasive snakes in Florida.

The Great Lakes ecosystem is highly valuable and threatened as a direct result of invasive species. The Asian Carp came to the United States not as a pet but rather as a way of controlling algae. They were brought into aquaculture and sewage treatment facilities to filter water in the 1970s because of their ability to consume large quantities of plankton. Consequently, this has had detrimental effects on our freshwater ecosystems. After a flood allowed them to escape, the carp made their way into 23 states and represent over 97% of the biomass in portions of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. Many organizations are trying to stop their expansion before the fish reach the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem, the Great Lakes.

The Asian Carp distribution in the U.S. since introduction in 1975.

The Asian Carp distribution in the U.S. since introduction in 1975.

In addition to threatening the Great Lakes ecosystem, the carp could devastate the Great Lakes $7 billion fishing industry, further threatening the $16 billion boating industry, and harm fisheries. Physical barriers and chemical control methods have been implemented to control the carp population but a complete hydrologic separation between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi region is believed to be the only way to prevent the species from showing up in the Lakes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates the barrier to cost as much as $18 billion.

Beautiful flower? Or Invasive species... Photo by Erin Hathaway

Beautiful flower? Or invasive species…
Photo by Erin Hathaway.

Invasive species are more common that we think and in many cases don’t appear to be invasive at all. While recently visiting a project site in California, I was drawn to a beautiful flower unfamiliar to me on the east coast, a Cynara cardunculus, also known as a Cardoon or Artichoke thistle. Turns out Artichoke thistle are invasive much like their related Canada thistle found on the east coast. Artichoke thistle are thought to be originally brought to the California area for their ornamental and culinary use. Originally from the Mediterranean region of Europe, California’s sandy arid climate was a perfect match for the species. The plant spreads fast and can form thick spiny stands creating barriers to wildlife movement. The aggressive root system outcompetes native species and leads to a thistle dominated landscape with little plant diversity. The fragmentation of the landscape and the decrease in biodiversity has caused a California wide effort to eradicate these weeds. Who knew such beautiful flowers could be so harmful to our ecosystem.

With more than 50,000 invasive species in the United States, control and eradication of invasive species is a top priority to protect and support native ecosystems. As a society, we recognize the valuable services – economic, social, and environmental, provided by a highly functioning ecosystem. To protect these services, such as those provided by the Great Lakes, the U.S spends almost $120 billion per year on invasive species control and eradication. (Pimentel, 2005). Despite appearances as beautiful plants, exotic pets, or even other invasive species controls, we must think critically before introducing a nonnative species into an area.

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Green Infrastructure: Cost Effective Strategy to Preserve Water Quality

By: Kate Gazzo

Even though drinking water is disinfected and filtered, anthropogenic pollution to surface waters may be lowering the quality of your drinking water. As you turn on your tap, pharmaceuticals, industrial and agricultural chemicals, heavy metals, and in some cases pathogens may be flowing out. Human health effects from lowered water quality range from acute illness stemming from microbial outbreaks to more common, chronic exposure to a wide range of aforementioned contaminants. Even though water filtration and disinfection can remove a lot of these contaminants, some are still present in domestic supplies. During a five year study (2004-2009) analyzing tap water from across the U.S., over 300 different contaminants were identified; 200 of these contaminants were not under federal or state regulation and a quarter of these 200 unregulated contaminants were above human health guidelines.

A combination of increasing chemicals and chemical loads in waterways stemming from Nonpoint Source Pollution (NPS) combined with urban sprawl and development are elevating the risk for contaminants to enter drinking water sources. Sprawl and development contribute to habitat loss and fragmentation, including a loss of natural watershed areas such as forests and floodplains which are essential for the protection of water supplies.

An increasing diversity, as well as magnitude, of these pollutants necessitates the preservation and protection of watershed areas, especially those upstream of drinking water sources. Drinking water sources are headwater areas to an end route, such as a lake or river. Protecting upper watershed lands and key buffer areas provide an effective barrier against common drinking water contaminants including, agricultural, industrial, and urban water pollution sources. Currently water utilities spend $4 billion each year on chemicals alone to treat drinking water; in contrast, only $200 million (one twentieth of this amount) is spent on the protection of source waters and watershed protection efforts. Increasing drinking water treatment costs are leading to costly water bills for consumers.

Although humans have engineered drinking water filtration plants to filter and purify drinking water, these services are provided by ecosystems for free and are often just as effective at meeting water quality standards. Multiple cities, including some of the largest cities in the U.S. including New York, Boston, and Seattle consistently meet drinking water quality standards with limited use of human engineered filtration systems. These cities rely primarily on green infrastructure (forests, grasslands, and riparian areas) to safeguard their water supplies. As a result these cities have saved millions and in some cases, such as New York City billions of dollars in potential human engineered or gray infrastructure.

Proposed cost-savings shown in blue (millions of dollars) for Portland, ME who is investing in green infrastructure including, restoration and preservation. Potential gray infrastructure costs shown in gray. (Figure courtesy of Gartner et al., 2013)

Proposed cost-savings shown in blue (millions of dollars) for Portland from investing in green infrastructure including, restoration and preservation. Potential gray infrastructure costs shown in gray. Figure courtesy of Gartner et al., 2013.

In New York City, a drinking water filtration system, the Croton Water Filtration Plant, was necessitated in the 1990’s by the U.S. EPA and NY State Department of Health mostly as a result of the developing upstream watershed. When completed, the Croton Water Filtration Plant will supply 10 % of the city with water from the Croton watershed, however, 90% of NYC, or eight million people still receive unfiltered drinking water from the protected Catskill-Delaware (Cat-Del) watershed. Due to the continued protection of the Cat-Del watershed, New York City is well known for the best tasting and purest drinking water in the world. The city also avoided $6 billion in the construction of a second water filtration plant by committing $1.5 billion to watershed protection over a 10 year period, further enhancing the upstream Cat-Del watershed.

The protection of the Cat-Del watershed exemplifies how protection and restoration of key land areas is a wise investment to reduce human health risks and water treatment costs. Soil and vegetation within protected watersheds degrade and filter pollutants transported form upstream areas and thereby lower the risk of downstream water contamination. Cities that invest in green infrastructure save money on treatment costs because ecosystem services decrease the level of treatment needed. For every 10 percent increase in forest cover, treatment costs decrease by 20%. Considering an average treatment plant may treat 20 million gallons/day, a 20% decrease in treatment costs may save thousands of dollars.

The percentage of forested area within a watershed is directly related to treatment costs. (Table courtesy of Ernst et al., 2004)

The percentage of forested area within a watershed is directly related to treatment costs. Table courtesy of Ernst et al., 2004.


Ernst, C., Gullick, R., & Nixon, K. (2004). Protecting the Source Conserving Forests to Protect Water. American Water Works Association. Opflow, 30(5).

Gartner, T., Mulligan, J. Schmidt, R., Gunn, J. (2013). Natural Infrastructure: Investing in Forested Landscapes for Source Water Protection in the U.S. World Resources Institute. Washington, DC. doi:ISBN 978-1-56973-813-9

National Research Council. (2000). Watershed Management for Potable Water Supply: Assessing the New York City Strategy (p. 545). Washington DC. Retrieved from

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Reimagining Roadways for Improved Environmental Performance

By: Jeffrey Harlan, LEED AP

As the summer travel season approaches, many Americans will hit the highways, city streets, and rural roads to reach their vacation destinations. Buzzing by at 65 miles per hour (or more), little thought will be given to how the vehicular transportation network – there are 4.09 million miles of roads in the United States, including 175,514 miles of the National Highway System – impacts our natural resources.

But there are companies, individuals, and communities that are thinking big and small about re-envisioning how our roads can positively impact the environment. In fact, improving roadway infrastructure is not just about transportation anymore.

One of the more imaginative and revolutionary ideas is to generate energy by replacing our asphalt roads with solar panels. That’s right, Solar Roadways.

Solar Roadways founders Scott and Julie Brusaw, the husband-wife team have developed a prototype of industrial-strength solar panels (with specially textured glass coating) that can be installed on roads, sidewalks, parking lots, bike paths, and almost any other surface under the sun. Solar Roadways estimates that solar roadways roads could produce more than three times the electricity consumed in the United States. The modular system also features LEDs to make road lines and signage, heating elements to stay snow/ice free, and a Cable Corridor for fiber optic cables and other infrastructure (including stormwater).

Solar Roadways | Michéle Ohayon from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

After completing two phases of funding from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration for research and development, Solar Roadways initiated an internet crowdsourcing campaign through to raise the funding needed to gear up for production. As of June 2014, Solar Roadways have raised over $2M of their $1M goal!

Another big idea for reusing our roadway system comes from William McDonough, a noted designer, architect, thought leader, and sustainability expert. McDonough’s current initiative is to utilize the countless acres of highway and railway landscape buffers to create critical food supply and habitat for monarch butterflies, whose numbers have dramatically declined over the past few decades. In 2013, only 33 million monarchs were recorded in the annual North American migration to Mexico, down from 556 million in 2003.

Monarch butterflies have suffered a one-two punch recently. First, their coveted habitat in Mexico (where they spend the winter) was decimated by cutting the amount of essential forest land; more than 44 acres of habitat in 1996 has been reduced to about an acre and a half today. Second, their food supply—milkweed—has been almost eradicated by herbicides applied to America’s corn and soybean crops.

McDonough’s solution to save the monarchs and promote biodiversity is to plant residual lands (e.g, the forgotten landscapes along highways) with milkweed. One piece of the puzzle is to generate widespread interest in monarchs. McDonough points to an app funded by the Annenberg Foundation that encourages children to take photos of monarchs with their smart phones to record the butterflies’ migrations. To date, the app has been downloaded over 900,000 times! Another avenue to promote the butterfly’s revitalization is to rebrand the food supply. Milkweed’s public appeal is limited because, well, it’s a weed. McDonough proposes a public relations campaign centered on growing the “milkflower” or “monarch flower” to encourage people to plant this vital species in their gardens.

At the local level, one organization in Los Angeles is taking to the streets to incorporate natural systems in neighborhood infrastructure. Water LA, a non-profit that advocates for capturing, conserving, and reusing water, has retrofitted residential avenues to better manage stormwater, decrease urban runoff, and replenish water supplies. One project, the Woodman Avenue Median Retrofit in the Panorama City neighborhood, was designed and constructed with native and drought tolerant landscaping and trees to capture stormwater from the surrounding 120 acre-area. Runoff is directed into pre-treatment devices and a naturalized, vegetated swale where it infiltrates into the ground to recharge groundwater supplies.

Project  transformed the 3/4 mile-long concrete median (left image) with native landscaping to capture the rain runoff from the surrounding 120 acres.  Images courtesy of The River Project.

Project transformed the 3/4 mile-long concrete median (left image) with native landscaping to capture the rain runoff from the surrounding 120 acres. Images courtesy of The River Project.

Water LA has continued its educational efforts at the grassroots level by offering community workshops about best management practices for residential properties. Residents are learning about how to conduct site assessments; install rain gardens, parkway bioswales, and greywater systems; and “kill” their water-hungry lawns. These design strategies, integrated with green infrastructure improvements to roadways, illustrate how local streetscapes can play an important role in natural resource protection.

Whether it’s generating energy, promoting biodiversity, or helping manage local water resources, our roads and highways are proving to be fertile ground for innovative approaches to environmental management and stewardship.

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Endangered Species Act Proposed Changes & Impacts

By: William Coleman

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) jointly proposed new language related to critical habitat designation under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The new approach is intended to increase the predictability and transparency of critical habitat decision making and set the stage for addressing current and future habitat conservation needs. This is especially significant because the agencies appear to be connecting climate change adaptation with ecological risk management for the first time.

Under the ESA, the FWS and NMFS ensure that federal agency actions don’t result in the “destruction or adverse modification” of designated critical habitat. Among other changes, the proposed language:

  • Revises the definition of adverse modification to read, “…alteration that appreciably diminishes the conservation value of critical habitat for listed species.” This change emphasizes the role critical habitat plays in species recovery since habitat loss is a leading cause of species’ decline. The definition is especially significant because it can apply to both current habitat and to habitat that alters over time, including as a result of climate change.
  • Describes the scope and purpose of critical habitat and clarifies the method by which critical habitat is designated. Numerous minor modifications are proposed, including a definition of features used to determine critical habitat under “dynamic habitat conditions”. Such conditions describe challenges species will likely face as a result of changing rainfall patterns, temperatures, storm intensity and sea level rise that are associated with climate change The agencies’ broader focus introduces an element of “adaptability” into the framework of the critical habitat designation process itself.

What does this mean?

For land holders and developers, these changes would remove existing limitations on the designation of unoccupied habitat even if these land areas currently have no physical or biological features supporting listed species. As a result land only needs to have the “potential” to contribute to species recovery to qualify for critical habitat designation.

The proposed changes expand the agencies scope, increasing their ability to make broad-scale designations of critical habitat. Furthermore, the number of “adverse modification” determinations will likely increase (because potential habitat is being so broadly defined), impacting project costs associated with changes due to the location of critical habitat.

Every state in the U.S. has at least one species, if not significantly more, included in these review categories. Further, of the 1,527 species listed by both FWS and NMFS within the U.S., only 688 species presently have critical habitat designations. The potential number of new critical habitat designations within the next three to four years could exceed 150 species made under the newly proposed rules and draft policy.

However, the presence of rare species or critical habitat on private property does not necessarily lead to restriction as to how the property may be developed or utilized. In fact, incentive programs have been established to reward property owners for conserving properties with the potential to support rare species. This includes market-based programs supported by FWS and NMFS-supported conservation banks and easements. Landowners will want to pay careful attention to developments in their states that could represent opportunities for generating significant long term revenues from these incentive based programs. Great Ecology works with large industrial and commercial land holders as well as private landowners to realize market-based conservation value from underutilized properties supporting rare species and habitats.

For more information about these market-based incentive programs and how the proposed language may impact your projects contact us today.

The proposed language is currently in the public comment period but ends July 11, 2014.

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Great Ecology’s Kentucky Office Opens

Great Ecology is thrilled to announce the opening of our newest office in Lexington, Kentucky. Led by Kentucky native and Great Ecology’s Associate Designer, Erin Hathaway, it is an exciting opportunity as the region moves towards a more sustainable and natural resource sensitive approach to design. Erin specializes in ecological guided design and has worked on complex restoration and design projects nationwide. As a member of the KYASLA executive committee, Erin is looking forward to becoming more involved in the local design community.

Contact Erin to learn more about Great Ecology’s ecological guided design services in Kentucky.

Great Ecology Kentucky Office Great Ecology’s Kentucky Office
163 East Main St, 3rd Floor,
Lexington, KY 40507
(859) 559-4058


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Setting a New Standard for Ecological Landscape Design

By: Chris Loftus, RLA

All landscapes hold “the potential to both improve and regenerate the natural benefits and services provided by ecosystems in their natural state.” (SITES, 2009)

To help achieve that potential, Sustainable SITES Initiative (SITES) sets environmental benchmarks and provides guidelines for sustainable landscape design. SITES v2, a revised rating system, will be released later this year and will establish the initiative as a tool for evaluating sustainable site design solutions.

SITES is a voluntary program similar to the USGBC’s LEED certification. While LEED pertains primarily to buildings and developments, SITES focuses on performance criteria for a built landscape’s ability to provide ecosystem services. In addition to reducing environmental impacts, ecosystem services provide long term economic benefits.

Founded in 2005, SITES evolved from the combined efforts of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the United States Botanical Garden. The SITES pilot program was initiated in 2010 to gather more information and develop more permanent guidelines. Since then, 162 projects in 34 states registered with the program, 30 of which received certification as sustainable sites. An additional 50 projects are currently pursuing certification, including the Fort Totten North Park in New York, a collaboration involving Nancy Owens Studio and Great Ecology.

Fort Totten North Park. Image courtesy of Nancy Owens Studio.

Fort Totten North Park. Image courtesy of Nancy Owens Studio.

SITES evaluates projects based on various criteria including site selection, habitat preservation and restoration, stormwater management, construction practices, and long term maintenance strategies. The criteria are divided into broad categories including site design for water, soil, vegetation, monitoring, and innovation. Projects earn credits by fulfilling requirements and are certified after accumulating sufficient credits.

SITES certified pilot program, Mesa Verde Visitor Research Center.  Image courtesy of SITES.

The Mesa Verde Visitor Research Center is 1 of 30 SITES certified pilot projects. Image courtesy of SITES.

The Mesa Verde Visitor Research Center, a pilot project that earned SITES certification, was completed in late 2012 in southwest Colorado. The project encompasses 105 acres of desert landscape within Mesa Verde National Park. Through the use of native plant material, appropriate soil management practices, on-site renewable energy generation, and the establishment of a sustainable maintenance program, the Center met SITES certification requirements. In addition to implementing sustainable measures, the Center provides opportunities for visitors to learn about the project’s regenerative qualities through interpretive trails, signage, and immersion in the landscape.

Bridges across bioswales at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Image courtesy of SITES.

Bridges across bioswales at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Image courtesy of SITES.

Another pilot project, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Research Support Facility, combined a 175-acre conservation easement, Low Impact Development (LID) stormwater management techniques, and Smart Growth principles to earn SITES certification. Located in arid Golden, Colorado, the project conserves water by harvesting stormwater for irrigation. A network of bioswales, bioretention basins, and native vegetation corridors was constructed to imitate historic drainage patterns and treat contaminated runoff from impervious surfaces. The project’s other sustainable features include porous paving materials and the use of salvaged stone for retaining wall construction.

Pilot projects such as Mesa Verde and NREL illuminate challenges associated with the SITES system. Completing the necessary documentation and tracking SITES requirements through design, construction, and monitoring incurs additional financial burdens. Gathering sufficient baseline data for monitoring project performance and insuring the implementation of long term maintenance measures can also prove difficult. The revised rating system aims to address these and other issues by incorporating knowledge gained through the pilot program, input from technical advisors, and additional research.­

The benefits of participation in SITES include energy savings, reduced infrastructure and long-term maintenance costs, marketing and PR opportunities, and healthier, more productive places to live, work, and play. SITES is gaining momentum and will likely continue to do so. It may soon be incorporated into the LEED certification system, which could streamline inefficiencies and introduce SITES to a broader audience.

As demand for environmentally sound development continues to increase and understanding of the value of ecosystem services grows, SITES will guide the enhancement and restoration of ecosystems while realizing positive economic impacts.



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