May 2006

New center to focus on aquatic conservation

By: William G. Gilroy

David LodgeSince its founding by such luminaries as John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the American conservation movement long has had its feet firmly planted on the ground.

Now, a new Center for Aquatic Conservation at the University of Notre Dame will attempt to focus greater attention on the environmental risks of diminishing water.

“Water is central to human life and the existence of aquatic organisms,” said Notre Dame biologist David Lodge, the director of the center. “But you wouldn’t know it by the way we have abused it. The center is dedicated to the development and application of research to conserve the Earth’s freshwater ecosystems in balance with the water requirements for humans.”

The risks of increased water use by humans have become painfully obvious in recent years. Higher mortality from water-borne diseases, destruction of wetlands, chemical and biological pollution, and interstate and international conflict over limited water supplies are a few consequences of increased pressure on the Earth’s limited supply of freshwater.

“The recurring theme of thoughtless exploitation of water resources combined with bad management is seriously endangering our freshwater sources,” Lodge said. “This disregard is now threatening human welfare and the future of aquatic ecosystems that depend on unadulterated and plentiful water.”

The Center for Aquatic Conservation builds on Notre Dame’s strong commitment to excellence in environmental sciences. Notre Dame is renown for research on the ecology of lakes and rivers. In recent decades, University researchers have not only been leaders in ecological research, but also have informed the management and policy of global aquatic resources.

The center will dovetail with Notre Dame’s growing network of programs and research centers concerned with the environment, including the Hank University of Notre Dame Environmental Research Center (UNDERC), the Center for Environmental Science and Technology (CEST), the new Energy Center, and the new GLOBES program.

“This center will provide an important link between Notre Dame’s excellence in environmental research and society’s need for scientific advice toward enhancing human welfare now while sustaining aquatic resources for future generations,” said Thomas Burish, Notre Dame provost. “The center will greatly enhance our interdisciplinary efforts in environmental scholarship at Notre Dame.”

Lodge notes that one of the center’s initial objectives will be to advance the science, management and policy of invasive species, beginning especially in the Great Lakes region. Invasive species are organisms that are out of place and cause serious trouble to human health, agriculture, forestry, natural ecosystems, or human infrastructure. Economic and social costs from invasive species are so great that both the past and current U.S. presidents have issued executive orders to address the growing problem. President Bush, in a 2004 executive order, identified invasive species as a top research and management priority for the Great Lakes region in particular.

The center’s initiative on invasive species will include a new partnership with The Nature Conservancy, the largest and most scientifically-based conservation organization in the world. The Nature Conservancy owns and manages extensive lands and waters globally and has had unparalleled success in working with industry and policy-makers to protect the environment.

“The synergism between Notre Dame’s excellence in research and the conservancy’s on-the-ground experience in managing harmful species will provide practical solutions to ecological problems,” said John Randall, director of the conservancy’s Global Invasive Species Initiative.

Various Notre Dame scientists will lead the center’s research efforts on other important environmental issues. These include the urgent need to reduce the run-off of fertilizers from Midwestern farms that has contributed to the huge “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Management of the harvesting of fish and other aquatic species so that populations are sustained for future generations is another central research challenge. In the context of urban development and forestry practices, Notre Dame biologists are testing how best to maintain or restore the underwater habitats essential for trout and other organisms on which they feed.

Additional research will build on existing expertise in climate change effects on evolution and occurrence of disease and other species. A critical challenge is how to provide water supplies and manage natural habitats to reduce the spread of human diseases, including malaria and schistosomiasis. The location of these and other research programs ranges from the Great Lakes region to the far-flung reaches of the globe, including Alaska, Indonesia, China and Africa.

“The curriculum and research at Notre Dame will be enriched and the center will contribute a vital component toward the larger goals of building interdisciplinary environmental expertise at Notre Dame,” said Joseph P. Marino, dean of the College of Science.
The center and its joint initiative with The Nature Conservancy also will offer undergraduates and graduate students opportunities to both enhance research and work with NGOs and government agencies to guide the implementation of scientific discoveries beyond the classroom.

“These new opportunities will help Notre Dame attract graduate students of high caliber, broad interests and strong motivation toward solving the world’s problems, and will help us prepare these students for leadership careers,” said Jeffrey Kantor, vice president for graduate studies and research.

Contact David Lodge at lodge.1@nd.edu

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