POLICY COLUMN: Instream Flow

Thomas E. Bigford, AFS Policy Director

Thomas E. Bigford, AFS Policy Director

By Thomas Bigford

By definition, water is a vital factor in maintaining an aquatic ecosystem, especially one with abundant fish. But that simplistic statement obscures the complicated realities of a healthy water body. Each species needs its predetermined blend of water quantity, quality, and chemistry. When aquatic systems are compromised by human intervention or natural events, and factors from tree canopy to surficial geology are added to the mix, natural balance is often shifted off center. There are several scientific approaches to monitor these complexities— total maximum daily load, indices of biological integrity, ecological energetics, and many more. This column focuses on a companion approach that has captured my attention repeatedly over the course of several decades—instream flow.

Instream flow has been discussed for years, gaining traction in my mind because of the relentless efforts of Christopher Estes, a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game employee and long-time AFS member. Estes and others seek to reserve or protect water levels in streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, with fish benefits extending downstream to estuaries and nearshore waters. There’s a non-profit Instream Flow Council (IFC) of government agencies “working to improve the effectiveness of instream flow programs and activities for conserving fish and wildlife and related aquatic resources” (IFC 2016).

The state, provincial, and federal fish and wildlife agency members who comprise the IFC work on the front lines of aquatic systems in Canada and the United States. The group published Instream Flows for Riverine Resource Stewardship (Annear et al. 2004), a comprehensive summary of the scientific, legal, institutional, and public policy aspects of instream flows. That international effort has inspired regional or watershed efforts, perhaps none more active than the Southern Instream Flow Network (2016; SIFN). That network, supported by the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership (SARP; like AFS, an active member of the National Fish Habitat Partnership), and funded by multiple agencies, facilitates protective instream flow policies and practices in 15 southern states by providing science-based resources and improved communications.

The network’s efforts were showcased at the 2016 Southern Division AFS meeting in Wheeling, West Virginia, in February 2016. SARP Coordinator Jessica Graham led an instream flow workshop well attended by state representatives and private-sector partners. In building their case for instream flows, workshop attendees offered convincing testimonials about the percent of impaired waters (current numbers appear to be underestimates), the need for increased assessments, and the need to connect flow work with related efforts on dams and other blockages, withdrawals, fracking, leaking supply and wastewater pipes, and many other facets of our total water budgets.

Many of these issues will be featured in upcoming conferences. AFS 2016 in Kansas City this August will include symposia on large rivers, both domestic and abroad. And the Restore America’s Estuaries – The Coastal Society Joint (RAE–TCS) Summit in December 2016 in New Orleans where one program spotlight is water quality and quantity, specifically connections between water, resource management, and fish habitat restoration. Between the international scope of the AFS Annual Meeting and the coastal focus at the RAE–TCS Summit, there will be many lessons to extrapolate to waters and landscapes suitable for your situation.

Those two upcoming events will also address the research agenda for instream flow, with applications to most hydrologic situations. That research agenda was discussed at the 2016 Southern Division AFS meeting mentioned earlier and is quite likely to be reflected in an ongoing AFS project to develop fish-related recommendations for the next President. The flow connection is manifested through drought, climate change, flow regimes, ecosystem or landscape approaches, imperiled species, and many other issues for the next federal administration. One benefit of the SIFN is that state policies, regional workshops, regional hydrologic classifications, data compilation efforts, water use decisions, and so much more are all shared automatically across 15 southern states, several Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and in-kind efforts by others.

Water issues, together with fish decisions, are likely to become more complicated as 100-year events recur every decade. Instream flow might not be the rallying tool for every situation, but some form of hydrological planning will likely benefit people and fish from coast to coast. Consult with your regional colleagues to identify options in your area. Then share your results so others can gain from your toils. Everyone from caddisflies to Lake Trout Salvelinus namaycush from freshwater mussels to Striped Bass Morone saxatilis, will applaud your efforts!

Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the author alone. Comments are invited at [email protected]

Annear, T.C., and 15 coauthors. 2004. Instream flows for riverine resource stewardship. Instream Flow Council, Cheyenne, Wyoming.

IFC (Instream Flow Council). 2016. Our mandate: mission and vision. IFC. Available: www.instreamflowcouncil.org. (April 2016).

SIFN (Southern Instream Flow Network). 2016. SIFN. Available: southeastaquatics.net/sarps-programs/sifn. (April 2016)

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