Q&A with Alison Bowden

Alison Bowden discusses the Conservancy's vision for conserving Massachusetts' freshwater resources

From cold, calcium-rich streams in the Berkshires to glimmering coastal plain ponds in Southeastern Massachusetts, our waters and streamside lands nourish farms and forests, generate energy, keep floods at bay and supply clean drinking water to more than six million Massachusetts residents.

The Nature Conservancy is working to sustain Massachusetts’ water resources so that we can meet human needs while living within nature’s means. spoke with Alison Bowden, director of the Conservancy’s Freshwater Program in Massachusetts about the strategies outlined in the Chapter’s latest publication, A New Way for Water.
"If we work together toward specific, shared goals, individual freshwater projects can add up to something bigger."

Alison Bowden, Massachusetts Freshwater Program director

Why does Massachusetts need a vision for freshwater conservation?

Alison Bowden:

Massachusetts needs a cohesive view of where we’d like to go with regard to our rivers, lakes and streams — and a solid plan for getting there. Just as you’d study a road map before setting out on a long trip, this publication paints a picture of where certain policies and actions can take us. If we work together toward specific, shared goals, individual freshwater projects can add up to something bigger.

What defines a healthy river?

Alison Bowden:

A river ecosystem is like a symphony orchestrated with rising and falling water levels, with plants and animals reacting to natural variations in flow. Rising water levels are a “cue” to many fish that it’s time to spawn. And many trees and wetland plants disperse their seeds to take advantage of moist floodplains in rivers that flood seasonally. Connectivity is also critical. Fish and other animals like turtles and river otters need to move to access food, mates and habitat.

What changes occur when water flow is altered?

Alison Bowden:

One example is hydropower projects that are managed for “peaking” flows, that is they hold backwater during times of low power use — like nighttime — and release it when there’s more demand. These frequent, dramatic flow changes are very stressful to aquatic life. Over time, changes can also alter the cues animals need to reproduce and the availability of food. When the disruption to those natural rhythms is too great, the ecosystem begins to unravel.

So how can we balance human demand while keeping rivers, lakes and streams healthy?

Alison Bowden:

The Nature Conservancy takes a scientific approach to the problem. First we ask, “How much water does a river need, and when does it need it?” Once we know how much flow alteration a river can withstand, we can develop strategies to make water management more sustainable.

That’s exactly what we’re doing on the Connecticut River. We’re working with the Army Corps of Engineers to determine how to manage dams in a way that provides the natural flows essential to ecosystems, while maintaining beneficial uses such as water supply, flood control and hydropower generation.

On the whole, would you say our freshwater systems are improving?

Alison Bowden:

Massachusetts’ rivers are a lot cleaner than they were 40 or 50 years ago thanks to policies like the Clean Water Act, but water quantity is becoming a major issue in many watersheds. In a state with abundant rainfall, we have rivers that run dry on a regular basis because of the way water is managed. It took a few hundred years to get to where we are now — to build 3,000 dams and the other infrastructure that fragments or damages habitat. We don’t have that same kind of time to reverse the damage.

What about impacts from climate change?

Alison Bowden:

Climate change only stands to exacerbate these pressures. Dams and other barriers will make it difficult for animals to move when conditions change, and these structures will be tested by intense storms and flooding. More prolonged and severe droughts will put pressure on the water supply, and higher water temperatures will stress fish and other animals. Fisheries could be severely affected if we lose coastal spawning and nursery habitats fed by our rivers. We have to be proactive.

What gives you hope when you think about our waters?

Alison Bowden:

I grew up on the Ten Mile River, near where it crosses from Massachusetts into Rhode Island. During the Industrial Revolution, the Ten Mile supported early mills, then larger textile and jewelry manufacturing facilities that caused severe pollution and the construction of numerous dams. Migratory fish and many other species disappeared here long ago. But rivers and aquatic species have an astonishing capacity to heal themselves when given the chance. I never saw mussels there until about eight years ago, and now there are plans to bring back alewife and shad. The river is finally clean enough to support them. It gives me hope that people across New England are coming to realize that you can have healthy rivers and meet human needs — and they want both.

Alison Bowden is director of The Nature Conservancy’s Freshwater Program in Massachusetts. She works closely with governments, water resource managers and conservation partners to assess the health of rivers, restore connectivity and natural flow and integrate freshwater and marine conservation strategies. Bowden holds an M.S. in Water Resources from the University of New Hampshire and a B.A. in Environmental Science from American University.


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