A social innovator’s journey into ecosystem science
I am like a child again, sitting with all I don’t know. I am part of a group that has followed a scientific researcher to his research site, a stream tucked away in a mountain, accessible via a bumpy rugged drive. To say he comes to this spot often is an understatement. In fact he spends days on end, pain painstakingly sampling the stream in hopes of capturing little bits of stream life that he can haul back to the lab for analysis, offering a single data entry into a multi-year study.
With enough data, over time, years even, conclusions can be made. When he asks us “Is the stream gathering water and moving it or do streams change it ?” we all look puzzled. Patient, he asks again in other words “Is the stream like a pipe or is something else happening ?” I sit with the simplicity of the question. Of course something is happening with the streams and it dawns on me that without specific data of exactly what, it is difficult to change the course of human development and action around streams. It begins to sink in how this work is a labor of love. I begin to see this young scientist and all his dedication with new eyes.
We are at a training that brings together social innovators and ecosystem scientists to co-learn about participatory leadership and co-creation processes, and along the way, each other. It takes place at the most appropriate venue, the Biology Research Station of the University of Montreal in Canada, currently directed by Roxane Maranger, an aquatic ecosystem ecologist, and one of our “hosts”. Created in the 1960’s, the research station serves as a baseline, as a pristine data point, since the rest of the lands nearby have given way to human development. We have to remind ourselves that though it feels like a retreat centre due to the abundance of nature, in fact the mission of this place is research. Our training event is appropriately called There’s no planet B.
The young scientist, who goes by the name of Charles, taught me a new term that day : “ecosystem services”. While “natural resources” are things, ecosystem services weave in layers of complexity with all the interdependences within an ecosystem. We can begin to link how a network of healthy streams contribute to oxygenated water running into our rivers and seas. Charles has the weight of the dead zone in the gulf of Mexico on his shoulders and the possibility that here in Quebec, Canada we could have one too if we are not careful.* He knows all too well that when nature is deprived on doing her thing, removing nitrates in this case, disastrous effects can happen hundreds of kilometres away. Simply put, ecosystem services are benefits humans gain from nature, such as absorbing pollutants we put into the ecosystem, for free. With an ecosystem service lens we can look at a stream or a forest or a lake with all that it may offer as a service, nearby and far away. Some other ecosystem services include: climate regulation, flood control, air purification. Ecosystem science helps us to understand the ecosystem services that are invisible to the eye. That is why it is a labour of love and so essential to understand if we are to live sustainably.
Where was ecosystem science making a difference? I wanted a tangible example where ecosystem science had been heeded by decision makers. I asked three scientists and each one gave me the same answer: the water treatment plant of New York City. It is a fascinating and powerful example.
In the 1990s New York City was at a turning point with its drinking water and needed to build a new water treatment plant to filter its water supply. The foreseen budget was 8–12 billion dollars plus 300 million dollars annual maintenance fees for the new plant. But another option was possible that was hugely cheaper. Rather than building a water treatment plant, New York could simply ensure the quality of water in the streams and rivers of its watershed in the Catskill Mountains and in so doing avoid the need to filter water all together.*** This meant buying up natural lands and protecting them from development, funding septic system upgrades and infrastructure repairs in the watershed communities and offering financial incentives for farmers to shift to non polluting agricultural practices.
This is what they did, adopting in 1997 the New York City Watershed Memorandum of Agreement. The ecosystem service strategy cost only 300 million dollars, saving the city billions of dollars and protecting an essential ecoservice now and into the future. Every day 1.2 billion gallons of water travels, mostly via gravity, from the Catskills providing 90% of New York’s drinking water. The bonus in the process is the Catskill Mountains watershed not only provides clean and affordable water that doesn’t require major treatment, but also the beauty of the region is protected.
This example shows that major multi-sector collaboration, ecosystem science and good will can help us find a way to work with nature to provide one of the cleanest drinking waters in the world. I learn that Roxanne and Charles are working on our own mini NYC with a local municipality and I am keen to collaborate.****
As I learn to truly face the physical limitations of the planet, the research of scientists like Charles gives me hope. I begin to see potential. At the same time, my work in co-creation, co-design, collaborative partnerships and platforms, seems more important than ever before. It’s going to take some serious conversation, collaboration and partnering to able to develop creative, smart solutions that can carry us into our future.
As we were leaving the site, Charles had us stop for a moment and look out at the view. “What’s that ecosystem service there?” he asked, giving us a moment. As I tried to come up with a smart scientific answer, Charles, gently smiling, states, “Beauty and calming”, that is another ecosystem service.
*Roxane offers further science on this point: Human activities, such as extensive farming, have loaded excess nutrients to the Gulf coast through the streams that feed the Mississippi River, which has resulted in excessive plant growth, its decay, and subsequent oxygen loss in coastal waters that deprive fish and other species of their habit. This oxygen loss, or hypoxia, is an important threat to many coastal ecosystems all over the world
** Charles Charrier-Tremblay has two co-advisors Roxane Maranger and Jean-François Lapierre
***Roxane offers some scientific nuance: All drinking water that comes from surface water needs to be treated at some level, even if it is really clean. The difference is the degree of treatment which is what made this decision so incredibly brilliant!
****Roxane is creating a Lab, called RéseauLab, which mixes ecoservice science with codesign methods to work with stakeholders for social-ecological innovation. It is currently being tested in a relationship with a local municipality to protect their ground and surface water. Working closely with stakeholders, research from graduate students provides both the understanding of the threats as well as the solutions as to which areas need more protection in order to maintain water quality into the future.
The historic 1997 New York City Watershed Memorandum of Agreement
A 2011 article in State of the Planet, Earth Institute, Columbia University providing and update on all 3 NYC watersheds: Maintaining the Superiority of NYC’s Drinking Water
Recent 2018 article in New York Times providing an update on further efforts to protect New York’s watersheds that supply unfiltered water: A Billion Dollar Investment in New York’s Water
Information on the University of Montreal Biology Field Station (in French)
Announcement: We will be organizing another social innovator-scientist gathering at the Field station outside Montreal in July 2019. Stay tuned!
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