Big River, Big Data

Old research will help conservationists solve new problems

A project at the University of Missouri is taking existing Midwestern river resources research data and retasking it to predict future problems, helping conservationists prepare for changes caused by climate shifts.

Brownishriver“This will bring together existing information from various sources and analyze it in a way that makes it meaningful and actionable,” said Craig Paukert, associate cooperative professor of fisheries and wildlife at MU’s School of Natural Resources. “We have much data on fish and rivers, and much of this science isn’t getting fully used. We need to take our existing information and make it manageable and consistent for different users.”

The project will specifically look at the floodplains of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. It is led by Robert Jacobson, U.S. Geological Survey in Columbia, Mo., and is one of six funded studies funded by the Department of Interior to guide managers of parks, refuges and other cultural and natural resources.

Recent floods on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers have motivated expansion of floodplain conservation lands, Paukert said. Within the state of Missouri, for example, there are more than 85,000 acres of state and federally owned conservation lands in large-river floodplains. Yet, no one knows if the water will rise, how long it will stay flooded and what impact the water will have.

More than Just Water

In total there are 140 flood plain and wildlife management properties in Missouri. Floodplain lands are highly dynamic and challenging to manage, Paukert continued.

Craig Paukert.Craig Paukert.
“Exchanges of water, sediment, nutrients and carbon between the river and the floodplain result in a diverse, productive and ever-changing mosaic of habitat patches,” Paukert said. “In addition to conservation benefits, these lands have the potential to provide valuable ecosystem services like habitats, nutrient processing, carbon sequestration and flood-water storage that produce economic values in terms of recreational spending, improved water quality, and decreased flood hazards.”

Paukert said that hydrologic conditions in upstream watersheds can vary due to climate change, land-use change and changes in reservoir management, which compound challenges to conservation managers.

“Managers face questions about how decisions made today – such as which lands to acquire, design of vegetation restorations, decisions to invest in water-management infrastructure – will be affected by the hydroclimatic conditions of the future,” he continued.  “The objective of this project is to formalize understanding of information needs for management of floodplain conservation lands so the right information is available at the right time.”