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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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Great Ecology Joins SER/SETAC Workshop

Ecology Team Manager, Timothy Hoelzle, joins the joint SETAC/SER-sponsored Technical Workshop, titled Restoration of Impaired Ecosystems: An Ounce of Prevention or a Pound of Cure. The week long workshop unites the nation’s leading scientists and practitioners to discuss best practices and research regarding the remediation and restoration of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems on contaminated sites. Outcomes from the workshop include a series of publications and presentations at the 2014 North American SETAC Conference in Vancouver this November, as well as a primer describing issues related to the restoration of contaminated lands.


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The Bay-Delta Conservation Plan in A Nutshell

By: Jessie Quinn, Ph.D.

The deadline for the public review and comment period for the Draft Bay-Delta Conservation Plan is approaching in mere weeks, on June 13, 2014. Did you wait until the last minute to skim the approximately 40,000-page document and send in a comment or two? Fear not! Here in the Sacramento office of Great Ecology, we have a ringside seat for the development and (potentially) implementation of a plan that addresses one of the largest—if not the largest—water management challenges in California since the building of the California Aqueduct. In the interest of promoting an informed and involved citizenry, we have distilled the entire Plan down to an easy-to-follow information fact sheet for your edification.

San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed. Map courtesy of the U.S. EPA.

San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed.
Map courtesy of the U.S. EPA.

What is the Bay-Delta?
The Bay-Delta is shorthand for the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, an inland Delta in northern California and the largest estuary on the west coasts of both North and South America. The entire Bay-Delta watershed covers more than 75,000 square miles (so, most of northern California). Fed by the melting snowpack, streams and rivers of several mountain ranges, the waterways of the Bay-Delta course across the state into several large bays before emptying into the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco.

What is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan?
The Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP, is a regional Natural Community Conservation Plan (NCCP) that covers the central delta of the watershed, an area of 872,000 acres. The goal of the plan is to protect the water supply the Delta provides to 25 million people and over 3 million acres of agricultural land in California, while also maintaining ecosystem health of the associated wetland, riparian, grassland, and forest habitats and the plant and animal species.

Images show the Delta’s extensive network of levees, weirs and canals which provides water to 25 million people and over 3 million acres of agricultural land in California.  Left photo courtesy of

Images show the Delta’s extensive network of levees, weirs and canals which provides water to 25 million people and over 3 million acres of agricultural land in California. Images courtesy of, Left: James Davidson, Right: Flickr.

Why is the BDCP needed?
The existing water supply transport system, which conveys Bay-Delta water as far south as San Diego, consists of an extensive network of levees, weirs and canals. These aging above-ground structures are vulnerable to damage from natural disasters, such as a storm surges or earthquakes, and could result in the flooding of adjacent communities of over 500,000 people and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. Sea level rise due to climate change will likely increase the scale and frequency of these catastrophic events.

The problem doesn’t stop there. Saltwater intrusion from the San Francisco Bay has always been a natural component of the Delta tidal ecosystem. However, the diversion of freshwater out of the Delta through massive intake pumps at its southern end changes the natural east-west flows through the Delta’s wetlands to north-south flows, causing a buildup of salinity in the waterways. The increasing salty water threatens to impact plant and animal species with low salinity tolerance, such as the Endangered Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus). This, as well as the levees’ contribution to the loss of floodplain habitat, natural channel margins, and tidal marsh, has resulted in a highly altered and degraded system.

Moreover, the pumps themselves disrupt the passage and migration patterns of fish such as the Smelt, Steelhead, Chinook salmon, and sturgeon. To protect the fish, certain levels of water have been mandated to remain in the Delta by a 2007 court ruling.  This reduces the available water supply, particularly in drier years. This potential year-to-year fluctuation would impact the reliability of the supply delivered throughout the state, where the demand for water is certainly not diminishing.

What solution is the BDCP proposing?
The proposed solution: divert water from north of the Delta, higher up the Sacramento River through 2 massive underground tunnels, each of which is 40-feet wide and extends 35 miles south along the Sacramento river. These tunnels would divert freshwater to the Bay Area and southern California from further upstream before the water enters the Delta, thus ensuring a reliable, high quality water supply to most of the state, while also protecting the conveyed water from potential natural disasters. Additionally, the tunnels would allow the natural east west flows to return to the Delta estuary, allowing the restoration of natural fish movement patterns.

Proposed: Two 35-mile tunnels divert water north of the Delta to increase the water supply and protect valuable native ecosystems. Easy solution? Not quite…

So, problem solved, right?
Well, not exactly. The construction of tunnels will directly impact numerous habitats in the Bay-Delta region, and will also potentially create further saltwater intrusion and habitat degradation higher up the Sacramento River, since freshwater will be removed from higher reaches of the river. To address and compensate for these anticipated impacts, the BDCP includes a joint Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)/Environmental Impact Report (EIR) under the federal and state NEPA and CEQA processes. The plan and the EIS/EIR seek a 50-year project permit to proceed with the BDCP work, which would allow some take* of Threatened and Endangered species through the regulatory context of the Natural Community Conservation Plan (NCCP); as compensation for the take, the plan promotes landscape-level natural community conservation in an adaptive management framework. Thus the NCCP includes plans for approximately 150,000-acres of mitigation via habitat restoration throughout the Delta over the next 50 years to compensate for impacts to sensitive species and habitats from the tunnels’ construction

Wow, all that habitat restoration! So now the problem is solved, right?

Opponents of the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.  Image courtesy of Censored News.

Not everyone is behind the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.
Image courtesy of Censored News.

Not quite yet. Some argue that the plan does more harm than good, citing their worry about the increased salinity in the Sacramento River and in the Delta, which would compromise the water sources of the area’s farming operations. Yet another concern is that the tunnels will take too much water out of the rivers, drying up some downstream habitat in the drier years which are expected due to climate change and subsidence. In fact, the Delta Independent Science Board concluded that the Draft BDCP fell short of integrating the appropriate amount of science into the Plan. Particularly, the Board was concerned that the feasibility and effectiveness of the planned habitat restoration was overstated; that the plan lacked an adequate analysis of uncertainty; that there was an exclusion of discussion about climate change effects on the project over time; and that the detail in describing adaptive management methods was insufficient. This analysis was released in a report last week. Not to mention, it’s expensive: the official price tag is $25 billion, but critics claim that the actual costs could be as high as $67 billion when interest and other costs are included.

What if they fix the restoration plan and then it gets approved?
There would be yet another hurdle for the BDCP to overcome. Assuming that no lawsuits delay the EIS/EIR approval or project implementation, the funding for the habitat restoration is not guaranteed. The $4.4 billion required for the full habitat restoration will be supplemented by several sources; some of that funding depends on the passage of two Water Bonds that require passage by the voters of California. The first Water Bond has been working its way through the legislative process since 2009 and is planned for submission to the voters this year.

Now what do I do? I want to learn more about this BDCP.
Well, the BDCP website breaks down the 40,000 page behemoth into its pertinent parts to make it more digestible for the public. If you want to search farther afield and simply do a Google search for “BDCP,” you’ll be hard-pressed to find a site that doesn’t offer some strong opinion on the Plan. With a critical eye, read these pages, too! Taking the time to learn about these multiple perspectives is first step into the world of science, land management, economics, and politics that we practitioners often live in… and it’s not always pretty.

Even if you don’t plan on commenting on the Draft BDCP, the site—and the sites that have something to say about it—contain a wealth of information about the ecology of a magnificent and imperiled ecosystem. The BDCP also provides a valuable opportunity to learn about the fascinating, complex story of the long history and uncertain future of water management in California.

*The Endangered Species Act defines “take” as to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, would, kill, trap, capture, or collect.”


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Urban Habitat Restoration Gaining Ground

President Dr. Mark Laska is featured in the recent Sustainable City Network’s article, Habitat Restoration Projects Abound in Urban SettingsDr. Laska joins a panel discussing the growing focus and momentum of urban habitat restoration projects within the last 10-15 years and how this trend will continue to define our future cities.

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Retrofitting the North Atlantic Coast

By: Charlie Howe

There’s no catchall solution for sea-level rise retrofitting.

Last month the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Hurricane Sandy Rebuild Task Force unveiled 10 storm-protection proposals for the north Atlantic coastline. The proposals, which are the culmination of 10 months of research and conversation by some of the most accomplished thinkers in urban design, form the third phase of the HUD’s Rebuild by Design competition, a high-profile ideas contest aimed at developing “regionally-scalable but locally contextual” pilot projects to increase coastal resiliency.

The contest generated new conversations about what post-Sandy resiliency looks like and when the Rebuild by Design jury selects a winner (or winning projects) they will set a course for future storm-proofing efforts along the North Atlantic.

The Rebuild by Design jury is currently evaluating which proposed designs will be constructed using HUD disaster recovery grants. Considering the attention on the contest and the potential impacts of any of the proposed projects, selecting a final project is a difficult task. The jury must compare proposals that provide a suite of benefits beyond just flood protection.

Design teams are all multidisciplinary and draw on a wide range of skills and incorporate diverse values. Proposals that begin with flood prevention also layer in pedestrian circulation, waterfront access, educational opportunities within the natural environment, and nearshore habitat improvements. As former commander of the New York District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, John Boule describes Rebuild by Design ‘…is revolutionary in the sense that we’re looking at environmental benefits, we’re looking at ecosystem services, the social value of projects. We’re incorporating those metrics. Deciding how to bring those metrics into the cost benefit analysis is a huge challenge and has tremendous potential to change federal policy, national policy.’

One finalist, the SCAPE Living Breakwaters proposal creates shellfish habitat in a series of breakwaters that would reduce storm surge on the southern coast of Staten Island, an area with some of the highest surge during Hurricane Sandy. The proposal explains that increasing function of nearshore habitat would not only provide benefits to local fisheries, but could create a focus for secondary education in environmental science.

Rendering of a proposed water hub on the shorelines behind the Living Breakwaters providing a space for recreation and education. Rendering courtesy of the SCAPE team.

Rendering of a proposed water hub located on the shorelines behind the Living Breakwaters. The hubs provide a space for recreation and education. Rendering courtesy of the SCAPE team.

Beyond weighing the many secondary benefits of each proposal, the jury must also consider projects which address storm surge at drastically different scales. The smallest, neighborhood scale proposals provide a means of targeting investment in the most vulnerable or highest value areas of the city. Projects of this size may achieve the highest return on investment in terms of flood protection per dollar invested in infrastructure. This is the ‘bang for the buck’ approach most clearly adopted in OMA’s proposal for Hoboken. Of course, it’s important to remember the benefits of neighborhood scale projects are localized and these strategies cannot be implemented in every neighborhood. The most ambitious projects, would require substantially greater funds, perhaps even surpassing the total budget allocated for post-Sandy rebuilding, $50 billion. However, it would take an approach of this scale to extend flood protection across neighborhoods and boroughs, see WXY & West 8′s Blue Dunes.

The proposed Blue Dunes design creates an offshore barrier island chain centered on the New York Bight.

The proposed Blue Dunes design address storm surge at the large scale by creating an offshore barrier island chain centered on the New York Bight. Rendering courtesy of the WXY West 8 team.

It’s clear, when evaluating the Rebuild by Design’s final proposals, each with it’s own merit, that there’s no catchall solution for sea-level rise retrofitting. For this reason, the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance has formed a multidisciplinary group to collaborate and create design guidelines for waterfront development. When complete, the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG) will provide a framework for incorporating the multi-functionality and resilience evident in the ten Rebuild By Design proposals in all new waterfront construction. It has been an exciting opportunity for Great Ecology to collaborate with other architects, environmental consultants, and environmental regulators to help define and protect our coastlines.

Retrofitting the north Atlantic coast will require a variety of flood protection measures, at various scales. Evaluating the cost-benefit of these projects requires us to consider environmental and social benefits in tandem with flood protection performance and has the potential to greatly enrich coastal communities.


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Join Us at the Mitigation Banking Conference

Great Ecology is excited to exhibit at the 2014 Mitigation Banking Conference in Denver – May 7-9.

Come meet our team of expert mitigation consultants including, President, Dr. Mark Laska, Senior Ecologists Dr. Puja Batra and William Coleman, and Ecologists George Patten and Joshua Eldridge. See you all in Denver at booth #17!

Learn more about our mitigation banking services, ranging from project strategy to long-term stewardship.

2014 Mitigation Banking Conference Booth

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The Everglades: Seen from the Tamiami Trail

By: Colleen Tuite

Strike out west from Miami on Route 41, historically known as the Tamiami Trail. Pass through the jungle of overpasses and freeways, which then smoothes into a sea of urban sprawl – strip malls and Best Buys. Keep moving. The sprawl ends, suddenly, and gives way to something even more ominous: a forest.

Melaleuca forestThese are Melaleuca and Australian Pine trees, planted extensively in the 20th century as a method to drain what was considered to be the unsightly and murky swamp we now call Everglades National Park.

Introduced from Australia in 1902 by the USDA, Melaleuca quinquenervia was considered a godsend: for the hand-wringing public officials of the 19th and early 20th century, convinced wetlands brought nothing but disease; for the U.S. military, charged with eradicating the indigenous Seminole people from their home; and for developers, looking to fabricate buildable and arable land. Deep roots pump up thousands of gallons of the so-called “miasmatic and malaria-filled” water which fuels the Everglades wetland system, effectively sucking it dry. By the 50s, it was understood that the rapid growth and ecosystem changes wrought by the Melaleuca may not bode well, but planting continued through the 70s, creating over 500,000 acres of water draining monoculture.

Forest of dead Melaleuca trees Continue your drive west, and eventually the forest opens to a grassland, punctuated by the skeletons of hundreds of dead Melaleuca trees. Now considered an invasive, Melaleuca is being controlled by quarantining, herbicides, and biological agents such as weevils. In the past 20 years the acreage covered by Melaleuca has been cut in half, with the intention of restoring native plants and habitat.

Press on and the landscape widens into a vast grassland. Canalization of the EvergladesNotice that you are now driving alongside a canal – and slowly realize that the road you are traveling on is bisecting the flow of surface water through the Taylor Slough drainage system and into the Glades, effectively choking the system of much needed freshwater recharge. Instead of replenishing freshwater in the wetlands to the south, this captured water is diverted to be used for irrigation. Between the 1950s and 60s, over 1400 miles of canals were constructed for both flood control and to capture water for use in cities and agriculture.

The canalization of the Glades has created the Everglades Agricultural Area – an artificial oasis of farms, nurseries and roadside markets just above the protected boundary of the National Park. The willful mismanagement of this area began in the 1920s, with the dumping of manganese sulfate into the then-wetland to encourage agriculture. Water trucksThe tradition continues today: while the Glades remain starved for freshwater, here one can observe fields being irrigated by trucks cheerfully spraying thousands of gallons of water into the air – a demonstration of what has to be the least efficient method of watering possible.

Agriculture is a major culprit for diminished water quality in the Glades. Not only does decreased freshwater increase salinity, but runoff water from the farms that does make it into the wetland is often loaded with fertilizers and petrochemicals. Legislation in the early 90s has helped control levels of phosphorous, but mercury levels remain a concern, especially as it bioaccumulates in larger (often already endangered) animals, such as panthers.

For the past 20 years, a program called the Central and South Florida Project Restudy has been operating to create a comprehensive recovery plan for the Everglades. However, it’s difficult to undo almost two centuries of mismanagement/ willful destruction, especially now that industries in the region depend on the denial of resources to the Glades. However, over 36,000 acres of artificial wetlands have been created to capture stormwater, filter phosphorous from runoff, and recharge the Everglades, including a 16,000-acre site which takes home the title as the largest constructed wetland in the world. More recently, some canals have been rebuilt in order to allow water to flow back where it belongs.

Looking ahead at the future of the Everglades, it’s clear that after centuries of mismanagement and neglect, this unique ecosystem will never return to its pre-1800s condition. But that’s ok – South Florida is now a rich mosaic of nature and culture that will remain linked. Opportunities exist to restore ecological functionality to the Everglades, while still allowing for human needs within the landscape, such as farming and recreation. Constructed wetlands are the first step in creating a shared ecosystem between agriculture and nature. The removal and reconstruction of canals and levees to restore water flow into the Glades need not be the end of fishing – these popular spots can be mitigated by introducing fishing into the constructed wetlands, and by creating artificial lakes which double as freshwater storage during seasonal flooding. By understanding and designing to meet these layered needs, an ecologically and culturally complex and resilient landscape is possible.


Mangroves and nesting pelicans in the Everglades

Carter-Finn, Katherine, Alan W. Hodges, Donna J. Lee, and Michael T. Olexa. The History and Economics of Melaleuca Management in South Florida. EDIS New Publications RSS. University of Florida IFAS Extension.

Harvey, Rebecca G., William F. Loftus, Jennifer S. Rehage, and Frank J. Mazzott. Effects of Canals and Levees on Everglades Ecosystems: Circular. EDIS New Publications RSS. University of Florida IFAS Extension.

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Marine Ecosystems Battling Oil Impacts

By: Ashley Tuggle

The Gulf of Mexico is one of the most active areas for oil drilling in the country. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Gulf accounts for 23% of total crude oil production and the Gulf coast contains over 40% of the oil refining capacity in the country. That much production and refining capacity centered in one region has made the Gulf a prime area for oil-related injuries. Galveston Bay in Texas, alone, has had an average of 285 oil spills annually since 1998.

The March 22 Houston Channel oil spill dumped 170,000 gallons of oil into the ecosystem. Image courtesy of

The March 22 Houston Channel oil spill dumped 170,000 gallons of oil into the ecosystem. Image courtesy of National Geographic Staff.

Most recently, the Houston Ship Channel oil spill on March 22 disrupted not only the Gulf’s ecosystem, but one of the busiest seaports in the nation, gaining national attention for the magnitude of the spill, 170,000 gallons of tar-like oil, and its commercial and environmental impacts. The Channel closed for 4 days and significant injuries to marine and coastal wildlife were reported.

Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, responsible parties must provide compensation for these natural resource injuries on top of the fines related to the spill itself. While the full magnitude of the Channel spill’s impacts is still to be determined, it could be extensive as globally significant important shorebird habitat lining both sides of the waterway. The timing of the spill is especially concerning given that it comes just before peak shorebird migration season when tens of thousands of birds will pass through the area surrounding the Houston Ship Channel.

Compensation for environmental impacts from spills of this size typically comes from habitat restoration or creation. A tool called Habitat Equivalency Analysis can help translate environmental damages to wildlife and habitat into restoration acreage.

Spills from ships and pipelines are not the only culprits for oil impacts in North America’s coastal waters. Widely-publicized major spills like the Houston Ship Channel spill typically account for only 8% of the petroleum inputs into the North American marine ecosystem. Natural seeps, cars, and other land vehicles, along with recreational boats are major contributors to oil pollution in the Gulf. It is death by a thousand paper cuts. None of these impacts are on the scale of oil spills, but taken in sum, they can add up to the more insidious and chronic injuries impacting our oceans.

Natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico. Image courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory.

Oil on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, from the natural seeps. Image courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory.

Natural seeps contribute the majority of the oil load in North American waters, about 60%. However, bacteria have evolved around these seeps that naturally break down the oil coming from them, which is why it is much more of an issue when an oil spill from a tanker occurs in an area that doesn’t have these seeps or bacteria.

Cars and other vehicles constantly drip oil, further contributing to the problem. Many storm drains lead directly to the nearest water body without treating stormwater. This means that whatever happens to be on the street at the time may impact the nearby aquatic environment. This kind of pulse impact can lead to more chronic problems in the ecosystem as low-level influxes of oil occur continuously.

Recreational boating can result in small-scale spills that may go unnoticed or unreported. Some experts have noted that as many as 80% of small spills from recreational boats go unreported. This makes tracking the chronic impacts and the full magnitude of these types of spills complicated for regulators and researchers. In busy recreational areas, small spills may represent a much greater proportion of the impact from oil than large-scale spills since they occur on a more consistent basis. They may be the main source of oil for areas that have little to no commercial boat traffic or drilling activity.

Regardless of the source of oil, the impacts of spills, acute and chronic, on our marine ecosystems are extensive and an ongoing problem. When planning for restoration in compensation for major spills, the myriad sources of coastal pollution from oil and other sources must be taken into account for an effective habitat design that can withstand and sometimes even help to cleanse these environmental stressors from an ecosystem. Ending all oil spills is probably not possible, but designing restoration to try to combat their impacts is. Understanding the ecology of a system and the processes that make it more resistant and resilient to oil and other stressors can be the deciding factor in the success of a restoration project. With oil spills, large and small, and the other threats to our coastal waters, restoration success is something our marine ecosystems desperately need to survive.

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A river runs through it, again

By: George Patten

An extraordinary ecological restoration effort is currently happening in Mexico, and if the star-studded (and brilliant) public service announcement featuring Will Ferrell, Robert Redford, and Kelly Slater is any indication, recent efforts to revive a dried up portion of the Colorado River delta are, in the words of Ferrell’s character Ron Burgundy, “kind of a big deal”.

for the first time in decades this 70-mile stretch of the Colorado River will flood.  Map courtesy of Wikipedia.

For the first time in decades this 70-mile stretch of the Colorado River will flood. Map courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Colorado River is one of the most celebrated drainages in the West – forming out of the high Rockies and flowing over 1400-miles through places like the Grand Canyon. But few realize that the river runs dry before reaching its historic delta in the Gulf of California. The 70-mile stretch of river south of the U.S. border once flowed into a rich delta ecosystem, but as a result of numerous pressures on the river’s water supply the delta has become dry and barren.

For the first time in decades the river is coursing its way towards the Gulf thanks to a binational agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. The historic and unprecedented restoration event involves a one-time release or “pulse flow” into the lower reaches of the river in an effort to revive the former ecological conditions of the delta.

Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of George Patten.

Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon. Photo: George Patten.

The Colorado River drains an enormous area in the western U.S. and traverses multiple states before crossing the border into Mexico. The expansive and mostly arid Colorado River watershed is highly influenced by annual snowpack in the northern portion of the basin. The River is also one of the most valued and managed water sources in the western US, with multiple dams and massive engineering projects and serves as a key source of water to multiple western states. Numerous compacts and regulations manage and allocate flows within the river between northern and southern basins, as well as between the U.S. and Mexico – collectively known as the Law of the River. Despite measures to help manage use of the river’s annual flows, increasing demand, impoundments, and periods of drought have contributed to the drying of the river prior to reaching the delta, which has in turn affected the natural ecology of the system.

Water released from the Moreles Dam on the first day of the pulse. Image courtesy of John Fleck.

Water released from the Morelos Dam on the first day of the pulse. Image courtesy of John Fleck.

The terms for the pulse flow were established as part of a binational agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, called Minute 319. The release of the pulse, which began on March 27 and will flood the region with over 100,000 acre-feet of water, mimicking high spring water flows that formerly occurred naturally in the basin.

Several groups are monitoring the status and impacts of the pulse flow, including the effects to ecosystems and wildlife in the Colorado River delta. The high pulse flow is designed to help support establishment of riparian vegetation and trees, such as cottonwoods and willows. Riparian birds and other wildlife are also likely to benefit from the flows through improved habitat and resource availability.

Although the event appears to be one-time, it sets the stage for future conservation efforts and marks a shift in conservation and resource management priorities for the Colorado River basin. According to the International Boundary and Water Commission, the pulse is part of a “broad package of cooperative measures for Colorado River water management by the United States and Mexico that protects both countries’ interests in this essential natural resource.”



Bureau of Reclamation: Lower Colorado Region – Law of the River. Bureau of Reclamation: Lower Colorado Region – Law of the River. U.S. Department of the Intentior, Mar. 2008.
Colorado River Begins Flooding Mexican Delta. KPBS Public Broadcasting. Ed. Associated Press. N.p., 27 Mar. 2014. Web.
Commission Marks Historic Environmental Flow In The Colorado River. International Boundary and Water Commission United States and Mexico, 27 Mar. 2014. Web.
Postel, Sandra. Monitoring the Pulse of the Colorado River. News Watch. National Geographic, 5 Apr. 2014. Web.
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