A few conversations, some fish, a dam and a chance at fast forwarding 25 years
by Michael A. Reuter
Director of the Great Rivers Partnership and North America Freshwater Program, The Nature Conservancy
If not for the smoking ban, you’d think time hit the breaks at the Irish Rose in Rockford, Illinois. Pharmacy-style pendant lights outnumber televisions (in fact, not a single flat screen in sight). The service is slow. Food good. It’s the type of place where you talk politics or write a novel. Where sending a text feels odd.
Though I did send one to my wife that Monday to let her know I’d be home late. My colleague Diane Rudin and I drove up from our office in central Illinois to meet with a delegation of scientists visiting from China.
I know, it sounds suspiciously Bond-ish. But no covert plot to reveal here (despite what the elusive Irish Rose might say). Just a meeting that happened to be at this little saloon halfway between Chicago and LaCrosse, Wisconsin—where the scientists had just returned from a technical exchange with world-class river monitoring experts from the US Geological Survey, in a program funded by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The next stop for the Chinese was Chicago for a flight back to Beijing. We hoped to hear how their travels had gone and how they felt things were advancing with our new China-U.S. EcoPartnership.
We listened to a full report on their travels along the Mississippi and Colorado rivers and all they learned about how to track the health of a large river fishery and measure the impact of various river management choices. Dr. Yao Yin—our program’s lead on Asia strategy and one of the translators for the evening—shared that scientists are already working with operators at Three Gorges Dam to let them know when a timed water release is needed in order to help economic fish species (or species in demand for food) thrive in a more natural river flow.
It’s proving helpful to the fishing industry, he said, and there are benefits for endangered species as well.
“But has this US-China partnership made a difference?” I asked Dr. Zhao from the Yangtze Fishery Commission.
“Literally, I can make a phone call to Three Gorges Dam Company at any time and they usually make the release,” he replied. This might have been possible anyway without the Great Rivers Partnership, he confessed. The dam operators see value in the practice to support the economy, and minimize environmental impacts.
“But,” he continued, “without the Great Rivers Partnership we couldn’t have measured the impact. We wouldn’t have real data to inform new management objectives.”
Dr. Bo Yang, The Nature Conservancy’s freshwater conservation manager on the Yangtze River, put things into even clearer perspective.
“With Three Gorges cooperating like this, and using our protocol as a guide, it’s a matter of about five years before the process is adopted.”
“Adopted?” Diane asked.
“Yes. If things continue to go well for the next five years, the process we’re employing with Three Gorges could become the standard or requirement for all hydropower dams in China,” she explained. “That’s how it works. So, if you think of it, what we’ve been able to learn through our exchanges with colleagues on the Mississippi—given that you’ve shared your pioneering efforts in long-term monitoring—can truly save us 25 years time. We can start monitoring now and adapting now based on the challenges and successes you’ve realized over decades.”
Diane’s eyes widened and I found myself looking around the room. This was big news in a small town, in a place without TVs. But, really, the setting couldn’t have been more appropriate. All the work we’ve engaged in with these folks, and partners from U.S. Geological Survey and many others has been a lot about community. About stopping the clock for a minute and stepping outside the walls of daily life to exchange ideas and experiences and see what floats to the surface. Real conversations. Deep friendships that span a globe.
We settled the bill that night and bid safe travels to our friends as they headed to the airport. On the ride back to central Illinois, Diane and I reveled in a different kind of energy than hydropower – the kind that is created when diverse groups of people come together in a trusting environment to address big challenges. The energy that generates the possible adoption of more sustainable river management practices across China and a 25-year fast forward.
Just a little more time to wait and see.
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Michael Reuter, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Great Rivers Partnership and North America Freshwater Program, has focused his career on the management of large freshwater systems for both people and nature.
He has been especially interested in ways to improve decision-making in these complex and economically important systems by involving the people and companies who depend on them for drinking water, production of food and fiber and energy, flood management, transportation, and recreation. Reuter's Midwest background has also shaped his interests and expertise in the area of sustainable agriculture, especially with regard to large commodity crops such as corn, soy, wheat and cotton.
The views and opinions of the bloggers on this web site are their own; they do not necessarily represent the views of The Nature Conservancy, its Great Rivers Partnership or any of its collaborators.