The term “ecological integrity” became a linchpin of freshwater management and conservation in 1972, when it was mandated as an objective in the U.S. Clean Water Act (Section 101, “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”) Since that time, large amounts of research has been devoted to methods of assessing the status and condition of freshwater systems using the currency of ecological integrity. Although the concept largely originated with the Clean Water Act, its utility as both a legislative framework and a general conservation ethic has led to inclusion as a guiding principle in monitoring and assessment of freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems worldwide.

Funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Olden Lab is leading a comprehensive review project of assessment methods and strategies for freshwater ecosystems. Although assessment methods have been reviewed periodically in the past for specific habitats, our review process will examine methods and assessment trends across all freshwater ecosystem types (lakes, wetlands, streams, and riparia) across a large geographic extent (North America). We are accomplishing this through a systematic review of peer-reviewed and grey literature, as well as examination of emerging approaches being developed by projects funded by the national network of Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs).

We are also taking advantage of the LCC network to access much needed expert, interdisciplinary knowledge related to how assessment results are used and translated. Assessment of ecological integrity is only half of the battle; the real challenge is designing assessments which support and facilitate conservation and management actions. To gather practical experience and opinions, we implemented a national survey of conservation and management professionals; this survey is nearly complete and will be contrasted with the results of the literature review.

Overall, the comprehensive and systematic review process will allow us to identify and recommend methods and frameworks which are well suited to individual ecosystem types, and particular management contexts and questions. A second objective is to identify data and knowledge gaps which will advance and facilitate particularly promising methods.

Project Goal Statement: To identify status and trends in assessment of North American freshwaters, recommend best practices for evaluating aquatic ecological integrity at different landscape scales, and identify data and knowledge gaps which would support future assessments and conservation of freshwater ecosystems.

Project timeline: August 2014 – January 2016

Project partners and related links:
Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs)
United States Fish and Wildlife Service
Project webpage (and interim documents) on Griffin Groups