SAFS Newsletter Masthead

Autumn 2012–
Winter 2013

Banner photos (left to right): Jackie Carter, Jeremy Monroe, Amanda Phillips, Jonathan Moore

Faculty Feature: Robert J. Naiman

MA, Zoology (Ichthyology), UCLA, 1971
PhD, Zoology, Arizona State University, 1974
Bioenergetics of herbivorous pupfish population (Cyprinodon) and its algal food supply in a thermal stream

Naiman on Wikipedia

After almost 25 years as a faculty member of the School, Bob Naiman retired at the end of 2012. Like many faculty, however, he doesn’t plan to sit and watch the grass grow.

Robert J. Naiman

Robert J. Naiman  (photo courtesy of R. Naiman)

Bob is from Pasadena, California. As a child, he spent time with his uncle, a professor who taught human anatomy. His uncle would take Bob to his anatomy lab and, using the abundant human body parts, teach him about nervous systems, muscle structure, and the like. His uncle also took Bob on salmon fishing trips, patiently explaining how things worked.

These adventures with his uncle motivated Bob to take a college zoology course, ultimately leading to a graduate program at Arizona State University, where he studied desert streams and their role in the broader ecosystem.

Bob then underwent an extreme climate change to take a post-doc at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, British Columbia, to investigate land–ocean interactions. He then worked at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution as a research scientist and MIT faculty member.

MD: Were you the only freshwater person at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI)?

RN:Yes, for the most part. Seeing how the oceanographers at WHOI and Nanaimo thought so comprehensively—about entire oceans—inspired me to look at watersheds similarly. This set the stage for the rest of my career.

MD: What brought you to the UW?

RN:When I became Director for the Center for Water and Environment at the University of Minnesota, I thought I’d put down roots. But then SAFS professor Bob Wissmar told me that the new Center for Streamside Studies (CSS)—a joint College of Forest Resources and School of Fisheries program—was seeking a director. I started that job in 1988 and have been here ever since, moving to SAFS full-time when the Center was dissolved.

MD: What is your nutrient deposition research about?

RN:We’ve focused on nutrient cycling and productivity in the coastal rivers of Alaska and the Olympic Peninsula, with an emphasis on nutrient deposition. Besides studying salmon in Southeast Alaska, we found other sources of nutrients that weren’t quite as “sexy.” For example, in the Peninsula’s Queets River, tree epiphytes and nutrients in old geological deposits play major roles in driving the incredible productivity in the riparian forest.

Over the years we developed some excellent insights into why these floodplain forests are so productive. With so much rain, which leaches nutrients out of the system, you’d think the riparian forests wouldn’t be very productive. But these forests are able to acquire enormous quantities of nutrients—nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and others—that the trees hold very tightly. Some trees have growth rates similar to tropical forests.

By understanding what drives production in our rivers, we can avoid mistakes. For example, we know that the big trees contribute organic matter such as epiphytes and large woody debris to rivers. Also, we better understand how floodplains provide a buffer zone against flooding. And the work also applies to having a sufficient supply of nutrients and clean water.

MD: Speaking of freshwater, what is your work on the Freshwater Imperative about?

RN:My studies on the integrity and resilience of freshwater ecosystems led to The Freshwater Imperative. The National Science Foundation asked John Magnusson (Univ. Wisconsin) and me to co-chair a working group that would examine national-scale freshwater issues, and we convened a meeting with about 40 renowned freshwater scientists at the Friday Harbor Labs.

The published results of that meeting (The Freshwater Imperative, Island Press) led to increased government funding, many presentations to federal agencies and professional societies, and the formation of the Water and Watersheds Program (NSF and EPA), which funded researchers around the country for many years.

MD: How did you get involved with French researcher Henri Décamps (Université Paul Sabatier EcoLab)?

RN:In 1984, I was seeking a retreat for a couple of months to do some writing. Someone suggested I contact Henri and he suggested I come to Toulouse. We became good friends, and it was a great environment.

Several years later Henri invited me to a United National Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) meeting. UNESCO wanted to establish a watershed-scale research program that would “make a difference”—that is, they wanted to develop an international network of expertise in to develop better land and water management practices. Towards this goal, they asked us for suggestions. We were already looking at riparian zones, so we suggested land–water interactions. UNESCO liked the concept, and I was voted to chair the group.

MD: What came out of that work?

RN:Many excellent ideas about riparian zones and land management arose from conversations we had in Europe, where they had been confronted with watershed issues for a long time. They had incredible insights on land–water interactions, and I brought those to the UW, where my students and many colleagues picked them up and examined them in the context of the Pacific Northwest.

Several years later, I was awarded a UNESCO Chair in Sustainable Rivers. The Director General of UNESCO announced the award during a visit to the US State Department. For the most part, my role has been to organize meetings on environmental flows for rivers, assess the global state of aquatic biodiversity, and act in support of other emerging programs.

For example, through a former student from France, Estelle Balian, I became involved in a global survey of aquatic biodiversity, working with EU members and people from Google Earth. The idea was to create a spatially distributed database by linking researchers and universities. Using Google Earth enabled users to locate extensive information about aquatic species from collections all around the world.

The goal is to be able to identify where a species, such as rainbow trout, can be found. The search results are in the form of a world map with dots indicating rainbow trout locations. By clicking on a location, one can see who collected the fish, when, and other data on the samples and species.

MD: You spent a lot of time doing research in South Africa. What was your objective there?

RN:I was fortunate to be invited to South Africa in 1990. A few years later, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation asked me to help with a program to retain existing faculty and build the next generation of ecologists. We developed and ran the program with a strong focus on riparian forests and with the cooperation of Kruger National Park and the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg).

For nearly 12 years we trained students from South Africa, alongside students and postdocs from the UW, and now several of them are faculty and researchers in South Africa and Australia. We also learned a great deal about riparian forests in the savanna along the way.

MD: In your River Ecology and Management course, you talk about building your “green” home. What brought that on?

RN:Years ago, a student in my watershed management class criticized the other students for just giving lip service to important issues. That changed the class direction in a very positive way.

Meanwhile, I had just bought property on San Juan Island. When I told my students about this, one of them said, “You’ll build an environmentally friendly house, right?” Well, I hadn’t thought that at all! But the student was right: there has to be actions behind the words.

So I learned how to build a green home and began to educate the many people involved, including County officials. Showing my students what I was doing with my house to demonstrate how to put beliefs into action was very inspiring for them; some students even visited my home.

We get almost all our water from our roof and store it in a cistern. We have solar power, some of which we sell back to the grid. We have a gray-water recycling system. Our passive solar design and insulation keep the house warm with very little energy use. And we use composting toilets.

MD: You are pursuing some new avenues of research. What are those?

RN:As one of 10 members of the Independent Science Advisory Board, I’m advising the Northwest Power and Conservation Council on possibly the largest restoration project in the USA—the Columbia River Basin. We’re putting into practice what I’ve been teaching for ~30 years, so for me, this is a great challenge and requires thinking deeply about difficult issues.

For example, we recently published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on challenges to restoration. The current emphasis on restoring habitat structure—without explicitly considering food webs—has been less successful than hoped in terms of enhancing the status of targeted species, and it often overlooks important constraints on ecologically effective restoration.

We identified three priority issues relating to the food web that potentially impede successful river restoration: uncertainty about habitat carrying capacity, proliferation of chemicals and contaminants, and emergence of hybrid food webs containing a mixture of native and invasive species. We have discussed how the Columbia River Basin, site of one of the largest aquatic/riparian restoration programs in the United States, would benefit from implementing a food web perspective.

We feel that a food web perspective for the Columbia River would complement ongoing approaches and enhance our ability to meet the vision and legal obligations of the US Endangered Species Act, the Northwest Power Act (Fish and Wildlife Program), and federal treaties with Northwest Indian Tribes while meeting fundamental needs for improved river management.

I’ve also been working with the Australia Rivers Program. I’ve taken a part-time faculty position at the University of Western Australia’s Center of Excellence in Natural Resource Management, where I’m investigating river restoration and climate change.

MD: How is climate change manifesting there?

RN:It’s quite variable—they’ve had years of drought but more recently they’ve had devastating flooding.

Over the next 4-5 years, we hope to determine how rivers could be managed to better absorb the effects of climate change. Today rivers are managed at the existing water line, and we’re trying to persuade people to give the rivers more room to expand and contract, as they do naturally.

MD: We usually think of climate change as a bad thing, but is this always the case?

RN:No, not always. In southwestern Australia, an ocean temperature rise of just 1°C could make aquaculture profitable. We’re trying to identify industries that can benefit from changes in climate.

MD: You also have gotten involved in research in China.

RN:Most recently, I’ve been advising on river restoration in China, where the ruling party has identified water as their first priority. Over the next 10 years, they plan to invest billions of dollars to restore about 130 basins.