It is no secret that waterways in most developed countries and in many developing countries suffer from some level of pollution. In many cases, this is significant enough to threaten ecosystems and human health. Given how essential water is to life on earth, why are freshwater resources under so much stress and will our changing climate exacerbate the stress? As I will show, the answer to the climate change question is yes and no, depending on geographic region and human activities. The answer to the former is more complex, involving the type of scientific theory that has underpinned watershed management to date and the type of social science theory that has most influenced governance.
Engineering science and hydrogeomorphic theory dominate watershed management with socioecological theory taking a backseat and uncertainty analysis rarely even considered. I argue that ecological theory can bring these facets together to improve watershed management even in the face of high uncertainty regarding future climate regimes. While there is a great deal of work needed to link this theory to the dynamics of social systems, there is a great deal of essential ecological science that is not being applied to manage or restore aquatic ecosystems. Admittedly, some of the science that is being ‘used’ has not been adequately tested (which I will outline), and ecologists have been slow to produce use-inspired knowledge (which I will explain).
I will begin by focusing on three broad areas that encompass bodies of ecological knowledge pivotal to successful watershed management: ecosystem dynamics, scale and context-dependency, and diversity. I will describe how and why ecological theory from these three areas must be fundamentally tied to the concept of a resilience-based management.