On a visit to Patagonia two years ago, Miguel generously guided me and other Natcappers through the countryside after we had worked together for two days on InVEST model improvements. In the Chubut River watershed, which was colonized by Welsh immigrants in the 1800s, he pointed out places where European farming techniques have altered the landscape. Plowed fields now sit where floodplains used to be, and lines of poplars and thickets of willows choke out other vegetation along the river’s edge. Upstream, shrubland cover has been thinning due to clay mining and overgrazing by sheep. These changes mean that when it rains, the villages along the river’s edge now have to deal with severe flooding and sedimentation on a regular basis. But in between rains the river runs lower, because of climate change. Miguel is working with leaders in the watershed to solve this and other challenges. Miguel and his colleagues also toured us around the stunning Valdes Peninsula, where Southern Right whales, Guanacos, and Magellan penguins are an important draw for tourist revenues for the local economy. Finding the right balance between development infrastructure to support tourism and protecting critical habitats is a challenge Miguel and his network are addressing. The way we are working with Miguel is exciting to me—he and his colleagues are improving the science of biodiversity and ecosystem services in InVEST so it fits better with their landscapes and questions their partners want to answer. I also saw first hand how Miguel is inspiring people in the region, by listening and engaging with decision makers, and illuminating new ways to manage lands and waters. The time he took to show us the landscapes and how people interact with them through farming and tourism, reminded me that much success in our work comes through building relationships and trust—that sharing mate and stories in the field could be the magic needed to create breakthrough solutions.
Stacey Solie caught Miguel by Skype a few weeks ago and here is part of their conversation:
Recently you co-authored a paper about the impacts of two dams planned for Argentina’s Santa Cruz River. Does that research relate to the work you’re doing in other watersheds?
I worked for many years on the Santa Cruz River. These dam projects were done with a lot of support from the federal government, really quickly, without a proper impact assessment. I tried to give my advice on the effects on fish at different points, without much success, really. It was frustrating to work with the Santa Cruz project because I couldn’t find any space to really put our specific information to use in the development of this large project. We were studying fish populations and aquatic communities at the small-scale and suddenly these big dams were going to be in place with ecosystem-level effects. It was a very strong indication that I was looking at the wrong scale. The scale of change in Patagonia rivers is at the watershed scale. That pushed me out of my comfort zone as a population ecologist into ecosystem analysis, and from single resources to multiple ecosystem services. Now, we have a network of people in academia working with people at the resource management agencies and provincial agencies in different watersheds in Patagonia. It’s similar to the idea of NatCap, but applied here regionally. We are in the third year of the network and people are really excited about what we are doing. They feel that we will get something really good at the end of the project. I think we are keeping that alive.
What’s happening in Patagonia that inspired you to create this watershed network?
We are working in four large watershed basins—the Chubut River, the Limay River, the Rio Grande, and the Gallegos River. The main drivers of change in the region are climate change, desertification by overgrazing, mining, and urban growth. All of those factors are causing water shortages for domestic and agricultural use and are creating problems with water quality because of excess sediments and nutrients washing into the rivers. But links between human actions and human well-being, in this case, the water supply, are not fully recognized by society and, therefore, are not as present on government agendas as they should be. The objectives of the Network are to substantiate, through reliable science, the connection between changes in climate and land and the provision of clean water, to reveal it to the public and governments, and to provide specific guidelines for sustainable development of the region’s watersheds.
That’s ambitious. How is NatCap involved?
When we were first thinking about this project in 2012, I had a chance to go to the Natural Capital Symposium at Stanford. That’s where I first learned about NatCap and the tools. We knew that we wanted to do ecosystem level analyses of watersheds in Patagonia, but we didn’t have the specific know-how to do it. So we set up a lab and a group of people that, with time, would be able to work together to do such analyses. InVEST became our flagship tool and NatCap directors and staff have been advisors throughout this founding period, and have provided training sessions here in Patagonia for people in the network. The full project is based on a partnership between TNC and my research institution, CONICET. TNC provided critical funding to establish and run the lab, and CONICET provided the funding to establish and run the river basin networks.
How are your applications challenging and improving the science underlying InVEST?
We are basically going in and doing a lot of sensitivity analysis and calibration. This provides us with a test for water and recreation models as applied to Patagonia, as well as an identification of critical parameters and data that we need to improve. One example of new science we’re developing stems from a need in Patagonia to link habitat changes to specific, highly valued species. InVEST is largely based on classifications of land use-land cover, and we hope to develop new methods to overcome limitations due to how good that classification is. It is in the critical scrutiny of InVEST models and data requirements that we see most of the potential for the collaboration with NatCap. Hopefully we’ll come back with some standards for input data quality, methods and protocols to improve those inputs, and ideas about modeling approaches that are more robust. As we in our lab appropriate all this knowledge and have started developing all of these modeling capabilities, we share them with people in the Network simultaneously, as fast as possible.