Sustaining Freshwater Ecosystems

"We hope to help restore some of the natural hydrology to the Ohio River system, which will create a stronger ecological base for the region's aquatic and terrestrial life."

John Stark, freshwater director

Flanked on the north by Lake Erie and to the south by the Ohio River, Ohio is a land literally defined by its water. The smallest of the Great Lakes by volume, Lake Erie is also the most productive, and teems with a diverse array of fish and other freshwater life matched in few other places on Earth.  Forests, wetlands, grasslands and waterways define the basin’s shoreline, which supports rich plant and animal communities as well as a large human population whose health and livelihood depend on the lake.  

To the south, the wide, deep waters of the Ohio River sculpt the state’s southern boundary.  The lifeblood of the region, the river is not only an ecological foundation for astonishing mussel and fish populations, but also an economic backbone that props farming, industry and recreation. 

In a world where freshwater supplies are endangered, Ohio is in a unique position to protect priceless reserves for future generations.  The Nature Conservancy’s Freshwater Director in Ohio, John Stark, is working hard to do just that. What’s your role at The Nature Conservancy?

John Stark: In my role as the Freshwater Director for the Conservancy, I plan and direct the freshwater conservation activities throughout the state, and also contribute aquatic expertise to large-scale conservation initiatives in the eastern and central U.S. In which area does your work focus?

John Stark: Ohio has two large basins that take in all of its waters: Lake Erie gathers in the waters of the northern third of the state, and water from the lower two-thirds flows into and through the Ohio River system. Ohio’s freshwater program is designed to protect and restore critical habitat components within these two systems. What’s the most important project on which you’re working?

John Stark: I am part of a core group of Nature Conservancy personnel developing conservation strategies for two large landscapes: the Upper Ohio River System (in PA, WV, OH and KY) and the Lower Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River (Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Lake Champlain and their connecting and tributary rivers). By sharing our expertise across state and regional boundaries, we’re better able to think and plan at a high level, so that we can work at the scale of nature.

I’m also working on determining the natural water flow of Lake Erie’s tributary rivers. The traditional flow regime of many waterways has been altered by human consumption over the years, supporting farm, commercial and residential uses. These modifications ultimately affect Lake Erie’s water levels and stability, and can impact the system’s health. These findings will be used to a great extent as part of the implementation process of the recently passed Great Lakes Compact. What are the Conservancy's long-term goals for these projects, or project areas?

John Stark: We hope to help restore some of the natural hydrology to the Ohio River system, which will create a stronger ecological base for the region’s aquatic and terrestrial life. We’d love to see flourishing populations of large, migratory fish, like as sturgeon and paddlefish, as well the freshwater mussels that are dependent on them for dispersal, many of which are classified as threatened.

Lake Erie also has hydrology problems, in that many of its once vast coastal marshes have been diked and cut off from the larger aquatic system. As fish breeding grounds, nursery areas and natural water cleansers, marshes are an integral component of the system and their destruction and fragmentation chips away at the health of Lake Erie. These shoreline marshes also support a staggering array of migratory birds, which rely on the habitat to rest or breed within, so by reconnecting the lake’s marsh system, we’ll improve their chances of survival as well.         

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