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Great Rivers

U.S.-China Science Exchange Advances Great River Conservation

Four Chinese scientists visit the Mississippi to learn monitoring techniques for use on the Yangtze.

The Great Rivers Partnership was launched with a generous gift from Caterpillar Inc., through its foundation. It is part of many efforts at The Nature Conservancy to advance freshwater conservation around the world. Visit nature.org/freshwater for more information.

Though they are on two different continents separated by thousands of miles, the Mississippi River and China's Yangtze River have one important thing in common, according to Ye Dan, a chemist with the Yangtze Valley Water Environment Monitoring Center (YVWEMC): "Both rivers are at the heart of their nation's history, culture and economy."

Ye Dan is one of four Chinese scientists visiting the United States this summer on an exchange hosted by the U.S. Geological Survey and The Nature Conservancy, through the Great Rivers Partnership.

Their goal is to learn about freshwater research and monitoring techniques, especially those developed by USGS's Long Term Resource Monitoring Program (LTRMP) on the Upper Mississippi River. The scientists plan to take what they learn here home to the Yangtze to help further develop their own environmental monitoring systems.

"You have advanced monitoring technology here in the United States, and we hope to learn about it and improve our own methods and technology," said Chen Shuisong, a chemist with the YVWEMC who is also participating in the exchange.

Challenges on the Yangtze

Like the Mississippi River, the Yangtze has been heavily impacted by human use. Fish populations have declined due to overharvesting for food and as a result of hydropower dams. Excess nutrients from agriculture in the watershed end up in the river, resulting in massive algal blooms that deplete oxygen and make it difficult for aquatic life to survive.

"Agencies like the Yangtze Valley Water Environment Monitoring Center and the Yangtze Fishery Resources Management Committee (YFRMC) have some monitoring systems in place on the Yangtze," said Yao Yin, an ecologist with USGS's Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. "But many aspects of their systems, especially in areas like standardization and data delivery, are no longer meeting the needs of the government effort to restore a healthy Yangtze River."

"Populations of fish like the Chinese sturgeon have crashed," said Yin, "and the government has implemented fishing bans and other measures in recent years to help them recover."

"The monitoring techniques that we and our state partners are sharing with these scientists will help them assess whether or not fish species are actually recovering and, if not, what else needs to be done," Yin added.

Sharing Monitoring Expertise Across Great Rivers

This exchange follows on an earlier visit by USGS, Nature Conservancy and other U.S. scientists to the Yangtze in May 2008. Hosted by the Great Rivers Partnership, the purpose of that exchange was to provide Chinese scientists with an overview of the LTRMP including what ecological indices are monitored and how the data is collected, analyzed and used to inform research and management decisions.

Established in 1986 under the Water Resources Development Act, the LTRMP is implemented by USGS in cooperation with the five Upper Mississippi River System states (Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin). Its purpose is to provide decision-makers with the information needed to maintain the Upper Mississippi River System as a viable multiple-use large river ecosystem.

"We learned a great deal about monitoring methodology during the 2008 exchange," said Lou Weili, deputy director of the Standing Office of YFRMC. "Now we are here on the Mississippi to see the equipment and monitoring techniques being used in the field."

During the exchange, the Chinese scientists will spend several days on the Mississippi with USGS and state DNR staff taking part in water quality, vegetation and fish monitoring studies. They will get hands-on experience with the equipment used in the field as well as the lab facilities and the data management system.

Building a Platform for Worldwide River Conservation

A native of the Yangtze River valley and now an ecologist on the Mississippi, Yao Yin is deeply connected to both river systems. He's excited by the opportunities this exchange presents for advancing conservation on the Mississippi, the Yangtze and other great rivers around the world.

"While these rivers are different in many ways — the Yangtze has a much longer history of human use, for example — many of the challenges we face are similar and there is much we can learn from each other about their use and management," Yin commented.

"By exchanging knowledge across these two rivers, we can make great strides, avoid the mistakes of others and help build a platform for conservation of the world's great rivers."

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