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Freshwater ecology: Helping to lower the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss

Restoring the natural functioning of our freshwater ecosystems will help address multiple threats to habitats whilst also providing both societal and environmental benefits. 

26 August 2022 | 1 min read
Nora Washbourne

UK

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Nora Washbourne headshot, Principal Ecologist at RPS
What's your role at RPS?

I am a Principal Ecologist based in the Edinburgh office. In this role, I will lead in delivering field surveying, ecological impact assessment and design of mitigation for freshwater habitats and species.

How did you get here?

I started my career as a fisheries biologist with a consultancy based in Denver, Colorado, USA, where I spent a few years monitoring impacts of active and decommissioned mine sites on freshwater communities in the Rocky Mountains. After moving to Scotland, I spent several years with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) before returning to consulting, where I have worked on a wide range of project types including renewable energy, linear infrastructure and flood management.

What challenges do your clients face?

My clients face complex and varied challenges during the design, construction and operational stages of projects. For example, I provide advice on the location and design of road crossings over watercourses to ensure that sensitive fish habitats are avoided and to ensure that fish passage is maintained through the crossings. I also work with key regulators and stakeholders, such as SEPA, NatureScot and District Salmon Fishery Boards, to recommend construction timings and mitigation measures to protect and enhance the freshwater environment and ensure that my clients meet their environmental commitments and responsibilities.

What does a typical job for you look like?

My role involves the whole lifespan of a project, including baseline surveying, input into design, delivering ecological impact assessments, making recommendations for mitigation, and overseeing construction activities. Recently, I completed baseline fish and freshwater pearl mussel habitat assessments for a wind farm in the Scottish Highlands. Using the information collected during the surveys, I can review the proposed layout and advise on potential impacts to the freshwater environment. For example, if any watercourse crossings are planned, I will advise on the design requirements for the crossing so that fish migration is maintained and micro-site turbine locations away from sensitive areas.

What’s the best thing about your role?

I have always wanted to have a career with a positive impact on the environment, and my work allows me to directly influence the design and implementation stages of projects in a way that protects sensitive species and habitats.

I also thoroughly enjoy problem-solving, so get a lot of satisfaction in working with clients, stakeholders and colleagues to come up with solutions for a project.

What's your vision for your role at RPS?

Freshwater habitats face a variety of impacts and I aim to be a key resource for both our clients and my colleagues at RPS. I have already begun training one of our new graduate ecologists on surveying for fish species of conservation interest and freshwater pearl mussel (a critically endangered mollusc with imperilled populations in Scotland) and have advised colleagues on freshwater considerations within their projects.

RPS also has a range of water resource specialists within the company (e.g., hydrologists, water quality specialists) that work on a variety of projects. I aim to work with these colleagues to deliver multi-faceted solutions for our clients that not only address all the challenges that they are facing but also deliver nature-based solutions to address the wider challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.

What are our biggest climate challenges?

Climate change and biodiversity loss are two of the planet’s greatest threats and are inextricably linked. Globally, freshwater ecosystems host as much 10 times the biodiversity per area than terrestrial or marine ecosystems, and freshwater vertebrate populations are declining at an alarming rate as our lakes and rivers are changing.

Within Scotland, Atlantic salmon and freshwater pearl mussel populations are declining rapidly, with climate change identified as one of the drivers of these declines. Both of these keystone species are hugely influential to the natural structure and function of rivers and streams, and Atlantic salmon are a bellwether for environmental change.

How important are nature-based solutions to tackle the climate crisis?

The UK is facing the combined threats of climate change and biodiversity loss. Adopting nature-based solutions for our projects is one way to both provide our clients with the solutions that they need while enacting long-lasting, positive change for the environment.

How does freshwater ecology fit into the climate adaptation strategy?

Restoring our rivers to healthy and functioning ecosystems is essential to addressing some of the predicted impacts of climate change. For example, climate change is expected to result in increased flooding, and the impacts of flooding can be reduced if watercourses are restored to natural conditions (e.g., re-meandering, establishing healthy and diverse riparian vegetation communities). This has the added benefit of increasing biodiversity along the river corridor.

What opportunities, threats and challenges lie ahead for freshwater ecology?

Freshwater ecosystems face a variety of threats including pollution, habitat loss and competition from invasive non-native species, many of which contribute to biodiversity loss and are exacerbated by climate change.

Restoring the natural functioning of our freshwaters is a key challenge but has the ability to help address multiple threats to freshwater ecosystems while providing both societal and environmental benefits. For example, planting trees along riverbanks is a simple way to provide long-lasting benefits as the shade they provide regulates river temperatures, their leaf litter is a key food resource for aquatic macroinvertebrates and they help minimise bank erosion and overland water runoff. The requirement for projects in England to achieve Biodiversity Net Gain presents a key opportunity to improve riparian habitats which will benefit species of conservation interest such as fish, waterfowl and otters.

Why the move to RPS?

I was drawn to RPS for an opportunity to work on a diverse range of project types, particularly in the renewable energy sector. I am also excited about the opportunity to develop the freshwater ecology business within the company and work with colleagues in other disciplines.