Ecological effects of environmental flows
Australia is leading the world in terms of large-scale implementation of environmental flows – water released for purely environmental purposes – through initiatives like The Basin Plan. There is a pressing need for evidence of the environmental benefits (or lack of benefits) from this huge investment of taxpayer funds.
As part of an Australian Research Council-funded project, my colleagues and I are undertaking research that will both improve the fundamental basis of ‘hydroecology’ – the study of ecological effects of flow variation, and also provide evidence of the effectiveness of the environmental flows program in the Australian state of Victoria.
We are using systematic literature review, expert elicitation, and Bayesian hierarchical modelling of data collected from the Victorian Environmental Flows Monitoring and Assessment Program (VEFMAP) to develop predictive models of ecological responses to flow variation. This is a new approach that uses knowledge from multiple sources and data collected across large scales to quantify flow-ecology relationships.
While the research is being conducted on Victorian rivers, the methods we have developed have implications for how this type of research is conducted around the world.
Monitoring Environmental Flows
Related to the above, I am leading a multi-institution consortium to monitor the effects of Basin Plan environmental flows in the Goulburn River, Victoria. This program brings together staff from the University of Melbourne, Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, Monash University, Jacobs consulting, and the Goulburn-Broken Catchment Management Authority in a research-management collaboration that will maximize our chances of detecting beneficial effects of environmental water delivered under the Basin Plan.
This program is being undertaken for the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office, as part of a larger-scale program that will conduct monitoring in 7 Selected Areas across the Murray-Darling Basin. Monitoring is currently being rolled out, and is planned to continue until 2019/20.
Systematic Literature Review
The world’s researchers are publishing increasing numbers of papers every year. Making best use of this mountain of knowledge is a considerable challenge. Many fields of research make use of systematic literature reviews – where the results published in papers become the data in new analyses across collections of papers. However, ecology and environmental science has been slow to adopt this powerful approach.
Together with colleagues from the eWater Cooperative Research Centre, I developed a standardized method for systematic review in ecology and environmental science – Eco Evidence. The method is also supported by freely-available software and an online database of evidence extracted from research publications.
We are using Eco Evidence in a number of research projects, and there has also been considerable interest from researchers and managers around the world.
Theoretical Network Ecology
How does the spatial arrangement of habitat patches affect resident populations? This type of fundamental ecological knowledge is difficult, if not impossible, to gather empirically because we cannot manipulate landscapes. But we can use population models to ask these questions.
Graph theoretic approaches have been used to model the internet, transport networks, epidemics, and ecological habitat networks. Together with Dr Mark Padgham, I have been conducting research on how the spatial arrangement of habitat patches in riverine and terrestrial networks affects population growth and extinction.
Thus far we have confirmed that the dendritic structure of rivers has important implications for landscape carrying capacity and probability of extinction. We are looking to confirm these results with further analyses, including examining some of the fundamental assumptions that underpin ‘metapopulation’ modelling approaches.