Ecologist Matt Baker discusses the health of our streams in new interview

Matthew Baker, professor of geography and environmental systems, sees an uncertain future ahead for the health of our streams, while the services they provide—from diluting pollution to generating energy—are only becoming more important.

“As human populations grow,” Baker says in an interview with the Ohio Valley Resource, “land transformation is degrading stream ecosystems at a truly historic pace.” Development for housing and agriculture are major causes of that transformation. Many people suggest we can easily, or at least eventually, fix whatever we break in an ecosystem, Baker says, but that may not be accurate, as we’re still working to understand the intricacies of how stream systems function.

“It’s tough to design what we don’t fully comprehend,” Baker says, with the result that most attempted restorations only address one component of an ecosystem, sometimes with negative effects on other elements. In addition, restoration efforts often address symptoms of stream damage, rather than underlying causes, so any positive outcomes may disappear only a few years later.

As a researcher focused on watershed ecology, Baker says it’s frustrating to see these efforts fail. “It’s sad…because the folks that designed and built it had the best intentions and relied on the best available science at the time,” he shares.

Baker argues that stream restoration projects need to be organized at the watershed level, rather than focusing on a single polluted stream or algae-swamped lake. But without comprehensive knowledge of how the watershed works as a biological system, even these well-intended and -informed projects can have undesirable consequences.

“I don’t want to criticize those efforts,” says Baker, “because they have the right idea, but neither do I want to communicate that we’ve got everything figured out.”

On top of the major challenges of better understanding complex stream ecology and the impacts of human actions on streams, Baker says, “Current regulations are not adequate for protecting streams and their watersheds.” Further, some economic-based regulations, like those that allow developers to pay for restoration elsewhere while damaging ecosystems where they are, may not even be effective.

Still, while there is significant difficult work ahead to develop effective stream health improvement projects, Baker says he remains steadfast in moving forward with evidence-based restoration efforts: “…it is a work in progress.”

Read the full interview, On restoration: A scientist’s concerns. Part of the interview was broadcast on NPR’s Here and Now segment,In coal country, environmental regulations are creating jobs.”

Image: Matt Baker launches a drone to take photographs of a dam on the Patapsco River that is in line for removal. Photo by Andy Miller.