SOIL AND WATER: BIOCHAR

By Alice LeBlanc for NWNL
(Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director)

This is the second blog in a NWNL series on how soil impacts water quality and availability.  Alice LeBlanc is an economist and independent consultant who lives in NYC.   For more than 25 years, she has worked in both corporate and NGO settings to promote market-based and land-use sector solutions to the problem of climate change.

P1020965.jpg

PAYING ATTENTION TO SOIL

Soil has an indisputably important role in producing much of the food we eat and supporting trees and vegetation that provide wood, fiber, habitat, natural beauty and other ecological services.  However, the direct relationship between healthy soil and clean, plentiful water is perhaps less known. Often overlooked is the role healthy soils play in ameliorating environmental problems that include water pollution, water scarcity and climate change.

Conventional agriculture uses inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, aggressive tillage, heavy machinery and wasteful irrigation. These practices often degrade soils by their reduction of soil carbon and compaction. Resulting erosion and chemical run-off pollutes waterways and groundwater. Further, their greenhouse gas emissions become significant contributors to climate change.  Although increasing and stabilizing food production, modern agricultural practices hurt our soil and water – two of the most basic elements essential to life on earth,

“Climate Smart Agriculture” (CSA) is a current buzzword of hope among environmentally-conscious agricultural experts, especially in developing countries. CSA combines cost-effective practices to increase soil health and crop productivity, use water more efficiently, decrease the use of inorganic fertilizers, and reduce or even sequester COand other greenhouse gases. CSA practices include low-tillage or no-tillage of soils; contour tillage; drip irrigation; terracing of sloping fields; and organic or custom-made (precision) fertilizer. Last in this list is biochar – a substance used successfully centuries ago by Amazon farmers.

P1020866.jpgKilns used for making biochar

BIOCHAR TODAY

Biochar is created by applying high heat to biomass (e.g. crop residues, otherwise burned or left to decay in the atmosphere) in enclosed, oxygen-free spaces.  This process, called pryolysis, differs from burning as it doesn’t use oxygen; produce combustion; or emit CO2.  Biochar can be produced anywhere inexpensively on a small scale by subsistence farmers with cook stoves or kilns, using on-hand materials.  It can also be produced on medium and larger commercial scales.

When used as a soil amendment, biochar alters the soil’s property, allowing it to retain more water and nutrients and enable some plants to more efficiently “fix” atmospheric nitrogen, thus attracting more microbes.  This improves plant growth and resilience.  Biochar’s effect is described as creating “microbe hotels” which draw microorganisms and bring additional carbon into the soil. To be most effective in increasing plant productivity, biochar can be mixed with organic fertilizer such as manure and ground animal bones.

P1020867.jpgBiochar production area

For the past year or so, I have been helping lay the foundation for the African Holistic Ecosystem Regeneration Initiative–HERI (a Swahili word for happiness).  HERI aims to scale up regenerative and climate smart agriculture, as well as better grazing practices across Africa. Our emphasis is specifically on smart use of biomass and nutrients, including using biochar as a soil amendment and planting of soil-enhancing trees with high-value crops, such as palm oil, coffee, cacao, shea butter, cashews and moringa.  This undertaking is being led by the International Biochar Initiative (IBI), the leading non-profit dedicated to the promotion of biochar research and commercialization.

BIOCHAR BENEFITS

The agricultural benefits of biochar as a soil amendment include increased food security and crop productivity, greenhouse gas reductions, increased resilience to climate change impacts, and poverty alleviation.

Many African soils are losing soil’s organic matter at dramatic rates, which has degraded soil fertility to an extent that threatens livelihoods of subsistence farmers in entire regions.  Biochar combined with organic fertilizer has been demonstrated in many small pilot projects in Africa and around the world to significantly increase soil productivity; retain more water; and sequester carbon, especially in highly weathered tropical soil.

P1020868.jpgMilkiyas Ahmed, Lecturer, Jimma University, College of Agriculture, holding crop residue to be turned into biochar

While results vary depending on materials used to make the biochar, soil and crop type, fertilizer materials and climatic conditions, biochar increases productivity on average by 25% in tropical regions – and up to 80% if nutrient-rich feedstocks are used to make the biochar. If the soil is of extremely poor quality to begin with, productivity increase due to biochar can be significantly greater, yielding 100% to 500% increases.

Another benefit is improved soil fertility when biochar use, combined with planting perennial tree crops, pulls more CO2 out of the air.  That carbon is then stored in increased amounts in above-ground biomass and root systems.  Those trees’ root systems then further contribute to soil health.  Additionally, the ability to sell perennial crops with higher yields, gained when using biochar and natural fertilizer, will generate higher revenues.

P1020873.jpgBins used to compost biochar with different fertilizer materials

Biochar systems, when properly designed, aregreenhouse-gas neutral.  They even become greenhouse-gas negative when they sequester carbon in woody biomass, roots and soils, and more microbes increase soil carbon.  As well, heat or combustible gases can be recovered from the biochar production process to generate usable renewable energy or electricity. In Africa, biochar produced with individual “cook stoves” has been used to generate heat as a clean, renewable energy for cooking.  When biochar is produced on a larger scale in big machines, a combustible, renewable gas can be fed into an electric generator to serve a micro-grid. Energy production from biochar production in some cases in Africa could generate revenues.

As well as direct benefits to agricultural production, biochar combined with agroforestry can improve water use efficiency; protect watersheds, water quality and water quantity; and decrease deforestation pressures.Without these measures, the outlook for subsistence farmers and food security in Africa is grim, especially in the face of increasing duration and frequency of droughts due to climate change and explosive African population growth.

P1020884.jpgPlots for testing the impact of different biochar plus fertilizer combinations

IN THE FIELD

On a recent trip to Ethiopia, I visited a biochar pilot project conducted at the University of Jimma in collaboration with Cornell University.  The project is evaluating the effectiveness of different formulas for co-composting biochar with natural fertilizers.  This work is being done in tandem with several dozen farmers incorporating biochar in their fields.

Jimma is on the Awetu River about 150 miles southwest of Addis Ababa, not far from the lakes of the Great Rift Valley.  It was my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa and my first visit to fields of small farmers there. Milkiyas Ahmed, a faculty member at the Agricultural College, gave me a tour of the biochar production machines.  I saw vats where the biochar co-composting is done, and plots where different crops are grown, with and without the biochar amendment.  In the trees around the experimental plots, black-and-white monkeys eyed the tender young plants.  A guard stood ready to scare them off if necessary.

P1020922.jpgA farmer in the village who has seen gains from biochar

We walked through the village of farmers with whom Milkiyas worked.  We visited fields of the farmer who set the highest bar for producing and using the biochar.  His method for making biochar in a hole in the ground was a very low-cost method indeed. The multi-cropped fields, containing a variety of perennial trees, enhanced a beautiful landscape.  There were two young boys swimming in a stream that ran through the fields on that warm Sunday afternoon.  One could only hope and expect that the water quality was safe and swimmable — which it could be with the right set of agricultural practices.

P1030024.jpg

 

All photos © Alice LeBlanc.

Stewardship Means All Hands on Board

As I was going through our photo archive for another project, I noticed a repetition of hands in pictures of volunteers, scientists, interviewees and other river stewards that NWNL Director Alison Jones has photographed. Whether they’re using their hands while talking, or doing physical work, river stewards know that stewardship means “all hands on board” for our freshwater resources!

Jones_070612_BC_2762Deana Machin of Okanagan Nations Alliance, British Columbia, Columbia River Basin

Jones_080207_ET_8440Scientist Fickre Assefa,  Abra Minch University, Ethiopia

Jones_160210_K_9606Elijah and Lydiah Kimemia, farmers working with KickStart in Kenya’s Rift Valley, Mara River Basin

Jones_090425_NJ_0614Bob Spiegel, Executive Director of Edison Wetlands Association, New Jersey, Raritan River Basin

Jones_070707_WA_6746Ray Gardner, Former Leader of Chinook Nation, Washington State, Columbia River Basin

Jones_090928_K_0097Amanda Subalusky and Chris Dutton, measuring water flows for GLOWS, Kenya, Mara River Basin

Jones_160211_K_0006Grace Mindu, farmer working with KickStart in Kenya’s Rift Valley, Mara River Basin

Jones_100522_NJ_1067Volunteer Kyle Hartman with Raritan Headwaters Association, New Jersey, Raritan River Basin

Jones_111026_LA_0044Dean Wilson, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, Louisiana, Mississippi River Basin

K-P-M-1701.tifMaasai morans’ hand shake, Amboseli, Kenya

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

50 Years of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act

Written by NWNL Project Manager, Sarah Kearns
with Research by Jenna Petrone

An unspoiled river is a very rare thing in this Nation today. Their flow and vitality have been harnessed by dams and too often they have been turned into open sewers by communities and by industries. It makes us all very fearful that all rivers will go this way unless somebody acts now to try to balance our river development.” — Lyndon B. Johnson, on signing the US Wild & Scenic Rivers Act in 1968.1

Jones_171027_OR_6986McKenzie River, Oregon, Columbia River Basin

On October 2 this year, the US will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act established to preserve rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values in their free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.2

At the time of enactment in 1968, eight rivers were given the designation of Wild & Scenic Rivers: Clearwater, Eleven Point, Feather, Rio Grande, Rogue, St. Croix, Salmon, and Wolf. As of December 2014, this National System, under the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, protects 12,734 miles of 208 rivers in 40 states and Puerto Rico. The total mileage of this system represents about .35% of US rivers, compared to the 17% of US rivers totaling 600,000 miles, that are currently dammed or modified by 75,000 large dams.3

While .35% is a shockingly small percentage, the official anniversary website reminds us to celebrate the Act’s accomplishments over the past fifty years. The growth from protecting only 8 rivers to protecting 208 rivers spanning 12,000 miles is a huge accomplishment. We encourage all to celebrate in order to look positively to the future when another 12,000 miles could be designated!

Jones_170617_NE_5263Missouri River, Nebraska, Mississippi River Basin

What exactly is a “Wild & Scenic River?”

Under this Act, Congress can designate a river under one of three classifications: wild, scenic, or recreational. A designated river can be a segment or stretch of a river, not only its entire length, and can also include tributaries. 

How does a river get classified?

“Wild” River Classification: Rivers (or sections of rivers) that are “free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive and waters unpolluted.”

“Scenic” River Classification: Rivers (or sections of rivers) that are “free of impoundments, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.”

“Recreational” River Classification: Rivers (or sections of rivers) that are “readily accessible by road or railroad, that may have some development along their shorelines, and that may have undergone some impoundment or diversion in the past.”4

Jones_140510_WA_0743Snake River, Washington, Columbia River Basin

It is important to note that the type of classification doesn’t change the type of protection each river or segment receives! All rivers/segments designated under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act are administered with the goal of protecting and enhancing the values that caused it to be designated to begin with. This protection is administered by federal or state agencies, which is provided through voluntary stewardship.5

Of the 208 rivers & river segments, 23 are located in NWNL’s US Case-Study Watersheds and Spotlights:  Columbia River Basin, Mississippi River Basin and California. Between now and the official October 2 anniversary, we will post several more blogs with photographs of many of these designated rivers.

Jones_160927_CA_6002Merced River, California

How can you celebrate?  NWNL encourages everyone to support all of our rivers and freshwater waterways, particularly the ones protected under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Acts. Swim in your local recreational river; go boating; organize a “Bioblitz;” join your local river stewardship organization; and most importantly, talk to your friends and families about why our river are so vital to our country!  This interactive story map shows whether you live near a designated river or river segment! For more information about 50th Anniversary events, view the official National Wild and Scenic Rivers System toolkit.

USA: Wisconsin, Upper Mississippi River Basin and St Croix River Basin,St Croix River, Wisconsin, Mississippi River Basin

Sources

1http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29150
2https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1912/index.htm
3https://www.rivers.gov/wsr-act.php
4https://www.rivers.gov/wsr-act.php
5https://www.rivers.gov/wsr-act.php

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Lake Erie: A Solution to Vulnerability

By Judy Shaw, with Wil Hemker and John Blakeman for NWNL
(Edited by NWNL Director, Alison Jones)

Judy Shaw, professional planner and NWNL Advisor, and Wil Hemker, entrepreneurial chemist, are partnering with John Blakeman to promote prairie nutrient-retention strips as a proven way to protect Lake Erie’s water. They are encouraging schools and farmers in northwest Ohio to install demonstration strips and teach this effective means to stop harmful runoff from damaging our waterways. NWNL has documented this runoff problem in all its case-study watersheds and applauds this natural solution to chemical pollution of our waterways.

Untitled.jpgUpland prairie nutrient-retention strip. Photo by John Blakeman.

Imagine a very large body of fresh water supplying residents along 799 miles of shoreline with the very essence of their natural health. Lake Erie is such a vessel; carrying over 126 trillion gallons of precious water and serving millions of people in cities both in the USA and Canada. One such city is Toledo, Ohio. There, water from the Maumee River, which flows directly into the Western Basin of Lake Erie, provides fresh water to many in the region. Up to 80 million gallons of water is drawn from Lake Erie every day to supply Toledo and other municipalities with treated drinking water. 2

However, runoff from agricultural lands taints the water with phosphorous. In 2014 runoff caused extensive blooms of green algae, creating toxic microcystins – toxins produced by freshwater cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae.3 This rendered the water on which the city relied as undrinkable. Today, four years later, continued flows of phosphorus-laden water still make this treasured natural resource vulnerable.

So what can be done? 

Many scientists have studied the problem. They’ve universally agreed that rainfall runoff from row-crop fields, suburban and urban land, and roadways is the root of the problem. As the City of Toledo rushes into a $500 million upgrade to its water treatment plant, the source remains completely uncontrolled.4

Jones_130520_IL_8783.jpgRunoff from row-crop fields after rain, Illinois.

Fortunately, solutions to manage rainfall runoff pollution are at hand. 

Through the work of many dedicated Midwest scientists, it has been determined that the presence of tallgrass prairies and seasonal, agricultural “cover crops”5 can arrest the phosphorous and nitrogen that historically has streamed directly into feeder streams and large watersheds like the Maumee River Basin.

On the matter of cover crops, it is important to note that wheat is planted in closely-spaced rows. Non-row crops include hay and alfalfa, planted en masse, not in rows. Alfalfa, because it is grown as a crop and is harvested, is not generally regarded as a cover crop. Cover crops are seldom, if ever, “cropped,” or harvested. Instead they are killed, or die, and left on the soil surface. Generally, cover crops are not true cash crops in the sense of harvesting and marketing.

Ohio prairie researcher John Blakeman found that edge-of-field strips of perennial tallgrass prairies can absorb algal nutrients in storm-water runoff, thus protecting the waterway while also enriching the prairie plants, or forbs. The tallgrasses and forbs (“wildflowers”) of native tallgrass prairies include big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), switch grass (Panicum virgatum) and a dozen or more species. All of these once grew naturally in northwest Ohio and exist today in a few “remnant prairie” ecosystems. Thus tallgrass prairies can be commercially planted with success in Ohio.

From John’s research with colleagues and published supportive findings from Iowa State University, he developed methods of planting a robust mix of native Ohio prairie species. He has planted them in several sites, including the NASA Glenn Research Center’s large Plum Brook Station near Sandusky, Ohio. Iowa State University has proved the ability of the prairie plants to absorb the renegade nutrients. The critical step is to persuade those engaged in Ohio agriculture to plant 30–60’ strips of tallgrass prairie species along the downslope edges of row-crop fields, where runoff water percolates before draining downstream to Lake Erie.

Jones_130520_IA_8937.jpgTallgrass Prairie, University of Southern Iowa.

Criticality? High. 

With these strips, Iowa research shows that up to 84% of the nitrogen runoff and 90% of the phosphorous can be captured by the plants, and the water running into the river is virtually clean. The levels of nitrogen and phosphorus exiting the field can no longer foster blooms of toxic green algae, such as those that crippled Toledo’s water supply in 2014.

Vulnerability beyond Lake Erie?

Non-point source pollution (i.e. sediment and nutrient runoff from ever-more-intense rainfall events onto rural row-crop fields, suburban fertilized lawns, and massive expanses of roadway and urban pavement) lies at the root of Lake Erie’s problem. This problem however extends beyond harmful algal blooms in streams, lakes, and Toledo’s drinking water source. It is the cause of huge hypoxic zones in the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico (from the Mississippi River drainage), and North American eastern coastal waters.

Some good news?

Several Ohio farmland stakeholders are listening and learning about prairie grass strips at field edges. They are considering how to research and demonstrate upland prairie nutrient-retention strips so more farmers, in time, might use this algal nutrient-suppression practice. Expansive adoption of these strips will reduce phosphorous and nitrogen runoff from agricultural lands, helping obviate harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie.

Jones_130520_IA_8938.jpgTallgrass Prairie, University of Southern Iowa.

All communities need to reduce non-point source pollution. There are many ecological practices communities can practice, including:

  • decreasing suburban and urban pavement
  • increasing tallgrass and forb plantings
  • designing prairie and wetland drainage swales
  • conserving water use

If we all understand the sources of pollution and commit to take action, it will only be a matter of time before other watersheds in Ohio and across the country increase their water quality by using upland prairie nutrient-retention strips and thus also expand green spaces.

How can you be part of the solution?

First, become informed. Many US federal, state and community governments are measuring and attempting to act on non-point source pollution. Learn more about your state and community programs.

Second, take action by changing your and your family’s personal water use. Change your home and neighborhood water and rainwater practices. Here are some suggestions from The Nature Conservancy.

Jones_130520_IA_8935.jpgTallgrass Prairie, University of Southern Iowa.

Lastly, connect back with No Water No Life. Let us know how you and your neighbors outreach to community, state, and federal government leaders is changing infrastructure and community water resource practices.

The strongest governments on earth cannot clean up pollution by themselves. They must rely on each ordinary person, like you and me, on our choices, and on our will.  –2015 Chai Jing, Chinese investigative reporter, and documentary film maker.

 

Footnotes:

1The capacity, over 127 trillion gallons, is extrapolated from USEPA Lake Erie Water Quality report, which notes the water volume as 484 cm3.
2 Toledo Division of Water Treatment.
3 The Florida DEP states, “Microcystins are nerve toxins that may lead to nausea, vomiting, headaches, seizures and long-term liver disease if ingested in drinking water.”
4 US News.
5 Cover crops are quick-growing, short-lived, low-height plants planted to give full coverage of bare soil, in the dormant seasons, (fall, winter, early spring). They are short-lived; serve only to cover the soil to reduce erosion; and retard growth of weeds before row-crops are planted.

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones unless otherwise stated.

World Wetlands Day 2018

World Wetlands Day – February 2, 2018
blog by Sarah Kearns, NWNL Project Manager

BOT-OK-107.jpgOkavango Delta, Botswana, Africa

What are “wetlands”?

Synonyms: Marsh, fen, bog, pothole, mire, swamp, bottomlands, pond, wet meadows, muskeg, slough, floodplains, river overflow, mudflats, saltmarsh, sea grass beds, estuaries, and mangroves.

Jones_070605_BC_1624.jpgDevelopment on edge of Columbia Wetlands, British Columbia

Worldwide, wetlands regulate floods, filter water, recharge aquifers, provide habitat, store carbon, and inspire photographers & artists.

Jones_111024_LA_8655.jpgCyprus trees in Atchafalaya River Basin Wetlands, Louisiana

Wetlands control rain, snowmelt, and floodwater releases: mitigation that is more effective and less costly than man-made dams. Nearly 2 billion people live with high flood risk – This will increase as wetlands are lost or degraded.

Jones_091004_TZ_2124.jpgFishing boats among invasive water hyacinth in Lake Victoria, Tanzania

Wetlands absorb nitrogen and phosphorous which provides cleaner water downstream for drink water supplies, aquifers and reservoirs.

Jones_091002_TZ_1209.jpgWoman collecting water in Maseru Swamp, Tanzania

Wetlands absorb heat by day and release is at night, moderating local climates.

Jones_111021_LA_2490.jpgRed-earred turtles in Bluebonnet Swamp, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

We all need the clean air, water, and protection from flooding that wetland forests provide. But up to 80% of wetland forests in the US South have disappeared. What are our standing wetland forests worth? Let’s be sure we invest in our wetland forests. (From dogwoodalliance.org)  Worldwide, we must protect our wetlands.

Jones_150817_AZ_5849.jpgSouthern tip of Lake Havasu and incoming Williams River and its wetlands, Arizona

To learn more about World Wetlands day visit http://www.worldwetlandsday.org.

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

 

What is a Bio Blitz? A Strategy for Stewardship

By Kevin FitzPatrick,
Conservation Photographer, iLCP Senior Fellow

DUK_0804 copy 2

Bio Blitz: a short, intense team effort to discover as many different life forms as possible in one location; shorter-duration, smaller-scaled versions of All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventories (ATBIs) [See Glossary below article.]

A Bio Blitz compasses all that I want to communicate to my audience about conservation and biodiversity, and it’s a wonderful way to communicate with students and adults about science. It offers young people a chance to try their hand at identifying species, photography, sketching wildlife, writing about nature or discovering the natural history of their own area. No two Bio Blitzes are the same, as each one is a reflection of the local environment. It is an opportunity for youth to enhance their appreciation of the environment through photography, art and exploration, and to engage in true “citizen science.”

ND4_3574 copy 2

 

With the iNaturalist Mobile Application, the Encyclopedia of Life’s Species Collections allows participants to document species and upload observations to a collective map available freely online. Bio Blitzes connect photographers with scientists who help them find species. This experience gives photographers the ability to expand the range of species in their files.

So many of us only focus on mega-fauna and common species, forgetting the big picture (or maybe the little picture). I am talking about butterflies, beetles, insects of all sorts, frogs, salamanders, snakes and, yes, slime molds! As the BioBlitz Concept begins to takeoff around the country, there’ll be a greater need for these kinds of images. Over 100 parks and refuges around the country now promoting Bio Blitzes, so you can likely take advantage of this great opportunity in your area.

_BBS0897 copy 3

I have shot over 115 Bio Blitzes from Maine to California with the approach of a conservation photographer. My purpose is to shoot a way that people can see the species present with all their beautiful, close-up detail and color. When this happens, perceptions change and these species take on a new life in the minds of the viewer. They are seen as an asset and part of their world! Thus, Bio Blitz is much more than just a concerted effort to identify the species that live in chosen location. It is a celebration of nature and the many wonderful forms that exist in any given place. When people of all ages and professions come together to take a closer look at their local wildlife, a tangible excitement builds.

Bio Blitzes are powerful tools for environmental education, conservation and community engagement, representing experiential learning at its best. Bio Blitzes images highlight species diversity and offer positive experiences within local ecosystems. When conservation integrates art and science, it merges different but valid ways of perceiving and experiencing the world.  Merging means of direct participation in Bio Blitzes may challenge or blur the artificial boundaries marked by our training.  But what biologist isn’t stirred by theprofound, and what artist doesn’t sense geometry in mystery?

_HBS6034 copy 3

 

At our core we are humans. The head and the heart are inseparable.  And so, a compelling story about conservation interprets the intersection of human history, emergence of an ecological conscience, and biological integrity.  A Bio Blitz is an opportunity to experience that intersection directly.

I have worked with a larger-scale, longer-duration ATBI [All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory] in the Smokies since it started almost 20 years ago. We have found over 1,000 new species. While in-depth, scientific ATBI’s are now starting up all across the country, the benefit of Bio Blitzes is that they are all-inclusive. Any one gets to go and play a part. Kids, parents, and grandparents – you name it!

I have worked with scientists for years and know how most people see them. To counter those preconceptions, Bio Blitzes allows people to work hand and hand with scientists in the field while in your element! Participants see how engaging, passionate and fun they are to be with. Also many younger scientists are excited to see the general public get in involved in science. I have worked with National Geographic on Bio Blitzes at Saguaro National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Jean Lafitte National Historical & Preserve, Golden Gate National Park, and The Mall in Washington, DC. At each one, the public was totally engaged and had over1000 kids attending!

NYC_1317 copy 2

GLOSSARY [“From ATBI to Bio Blitz”]

ATBI: an intense inventory of all taxa to the species level to the degree possible in a single site, followed by on-going further inventory as needed by specific taxa and in-depth basic and applied biodiversity research and development (Janzen and Hallwachs 1994).

Bio Blitz: part rapid biological survey and part public outreach event bringing together scientists and volunteers to compile a snapshot of biodiversity in a relatively short amount of time (Karns et al. 2006; Lundmark 2003). It is not intended to be an exhaustive inventory, but can contribute to a more comprehensive ATBI effort in the future.

Biodiversity. The variety of living organisms considered at all levels of organization, including the genetic, species, and higher taxonomic levels, and the variety of habitats and ecosystems,as well as the processes occurring therein (Meffe and Carroll 1997).

Citizen science. Citizen science refers to participation of the general public as field assistants in scientific studies (Cohn 2008; Irwin 1995). Volunteers may have no specific scientific training,and typically perform, or manage, tasks such as observation, measurement, or computation.

Inventory. Natural resource inventories are extensive point-in-time surveys to determine the location or condition of a resource, including the presence, class, distribution, and status of biological resources such as plants and animals. Inventories are designed to contribute to our knowledge of the condition of park resources and establish baseline information for subsequent monitoring activities (NPS 2008).

All photos provided by Kevin FitzPatrick.

Seeking Nile River Origins via its Tributaries

By Joannah Otis for No Water No Life

This is the third blog on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses the sources of the Nile  – lakes, tributaries, and a great swamp. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists in Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the main stem of the Nile.]

For centuries, the debate over the source of the Nile River incited explorations and evoked endless questions. The Ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile originated from an underground sea or spring, but never ventured upriver to confirm their theory.  Instead they put their faith in Hapi, god of the Nile River.1 [See NWNL Blog “Finding Hapi-ness on the Nile,” .]

1000px-River_Nile_map.svgMap of the Nile River and its sources. (Attribution: Hel-Hama)

Interest in the elusive source arose again c. 440 BCE when Herodotus wrote in The Histories of the “fountains of the Nile.”  He asserted that melting snow from upstream mountains flooded the headwaters to create the seasonal inundation.2  It was not until 1768 when James Bruce began searching for and ultimately found the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana in the Ethiopian Highlands that some light was shed on the issue.  

In 1874, Henry Morton Stanley confirmed an earlier theory by John Hanning Speke that Lake Victoria was the source of the White Nile. These explorers and many others were often sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society in England and driven by their own hopes for fame.3 Today’s satellite technology and advanced resources have enabled us to positively identify Lake Tana as the source of the Blue Nile and Lake Victoria as the source of the White Nile. These two main rivers meet in Khartoum, Egypt to form the great Nile River.

ET Bar 0125D.JPGTissiat Falls, from L. Tana, source  of the Blue Nile.  (© Alison M. Jones)

The Blue Nile is the source of about 85% of the Nile’s water.4 Beginning in the Ethiopian Highlands where a plateau of basalt lava receives rain from seasonal monsoons from May to October, the Blue Nile stretches over 900 miles into Sudan. This origin point lies 2,500 meters above sea level.  Beginning its northbound route, this river flows through Lake Tana, as well as the Blue Nile Gorge.5 Lake Tana is a shallow body of water measuring 1,400 square miles, surrounded by the Amhara tribe’s ancestral lands.6 The Blue Nile Gorge, lying on the edge of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, guides the Blue Nile for 370 miles into the middle of the Ethiopian Highlands.7

While the White Nile contributes only 15% of the Nile River’s water, it is still an important ecological and hydrological presence.8 Originating in Lake Victoria and fed by the Ruvubu, Nyabarongo, Mara and other rivers, the White Nile flows through Lake Kyoga, Lake Albert, and the Sudd.9 The White Nile flows through much of the Albertine Rift Region.  It spans from the northernmost point of Uganda’s Lake Albert to the southern tip of Lake Tanganyika.10  This rift is home to a plethora of diverse wildlife, including 5,793 plant species, which brings profitable tourism to Uganda. Between Juba, Ethiopia and Khartoum, the river in Sudan drops just 75 meters. To the east and west of the river, the floodplains become savannah and then desert as lush growth that adorns the Nile’s banks disappears.11

White_Nile_Bridge,_Omdurman_to_Khartoum,_SudanThe White Nile Bridge in Sudan. (Attribution: David Stanley)

Just south of Khartoum, lies the vast Sudd, covering most of  South Sudan. Meaning ‘obstacle’ in Arabic. the Sudd is one of the world’s largest wetlands and the Nile Basin’s largest freshwater wetland.  The Sudd is a 12,355 square-mile practically impenetrable swamp of complex channels and lagoons –  an explorer’s challenge.  Fed by heavy rainfall from April to October,12 it provides floodwater storage and water habitat for 350 plant species, 470 migratory bird species, and 100 fish species.  Antelope migrations from the surrounding arid Sahel retreat annually to the Sudd in astonishing numbers.  Around 1.2 million white-eared kob, Nile Lechwe, and tiang, as well as wild dogs, crocodiles and hippos in the Sudd are best viewed by air.   The Sudd is also the home to pastoralist Nuer, Dinka and Shilluk tribes, Nilotic peoples who practice subsistence semi-nomadic cattle breeding and some grain farming.

Jones_040826_ET_0160Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s source of the Blue Nile. (© Alison M. Jones)

Ecosystems within the swamp include open waters with submerged vegetation, floodplain shrubland, surface-floating fringe vegetation, seasonally flooded grassland and woodland.13 Since most of the water that enters the Sudd evaporates due to high temperatures in Sudan, the White Nile leaves this swamp with half the power with which it enters.14  Since the 1930’s, there’ve been proposals to build a canal, today referred to as the Jonglei Canal Project, east out of the Sudd directly to the main stem of the Nile River.  It is said such a canal could increase Egypt’s water supply by five to seven percent. While Sudan and Egypt would benefit, South Sudan would see its fisheries die, grazing lands dry out and groundwater lowered.

Uganda:Lake Victoria, Uganda’s source of the White Nile. (© Alison M. Jones)

After years of searching, the sources of the Blue and White Nile River are no longer mysteries. The number of plant and animal species who depend on them are staggering, but they also serve as important lifelines for the humans living on their banks. From water for irrigation to water for domestic use, the Nile River tributaries are vital to North African survival of all species, including humans. It would be a human and environmental tragedy if these Nile tributaries or the great Sudd were drained and disappeared, as has Africa’s Lake Chad. Thus, these waterways deserve the respect and care owed to such treasured and vital resources.

Sources

1 Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.
2Bangs, Richard; Scaturro, Pasquale. Mystery of the Nile. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. New York, New York. 2005.
3 Turnbull, March. “The Great Race for the Rivers of Africa.” Africa Geographic. May 2004.
4 “Nile River Facts.” Africa Facts. Web.
5“History of the Nile.” Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Web.
6Bangs, Richard; Scaturro, Pasquale. Mystery of the Nile. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. New York, New York. 2005.
7Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.
8“Nile River Facts.” Africa Facts. Web. September 27, 2017.
9Caputo, Robert. “Journey up the Nile.” National Geographic. May 1985.
10“The Environmental Resources of the Nile Basin.” p 57-98. Web.
11Pavan, Aldo. The Nile From the Mountains to the Mediterranean. Thames and Hudson Ltd. 2006.
12 Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.
13“The Environmental Resources of the Nile Basin.” p 57-98. Web.
14Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.