Minnesota - North Dakota - South Dakota

Kristen Blann, Freshwater Ecologist

In this role she provides science leadership for freshwater and watershed conservation planning. This includes development of conservation action plans for priority lakes, river basins and watersheds; lake classification and conservation portfolios; and ecological flow and water level criteria to support sustainable water management in Minnesota.

Kristen also shares her freshwater expertise with other states. She helped create conservation action plans for the Boone River in Iowa and the Meramec River in Missouri, and worked with North Carolina to identify priorities for freshwater conservation in the Cape Fear watershed.

Kristen holds M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Conservation Biology from the University of Minnesota, Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology.

nature.org:

What does a day in the life of a freshwater ecologist look like?

Kristen Blann:

The ideal life of a freshwater ecologist involves getting your feet wet—getting out on a lake, river or stream to survey aquatic insects, fish, mussels or plants, or doing some water quality monitoring. For example, I’ve helped sample for winged mapleleaf and Higgins eye mussels, both on the federal endangered species list, in the St. Croix River with the multi-agency partnership involved in their restoration in the Upper Mississippi River Basin. But most days I’m meeting with partners or working at the computer, writing plans or making maps that organize and analyze the data we and other agencies and organizations use to guide our freshwater conservation work.

nature.org:

In Minnesota, the Conservancy has focused its freshwater work on the Mississippi River Headwaters, St. Croix River watershed and the rivers of the southeast. Why are these important areas for freshwater conservation?

Kristen Blann:

The St. Croix is one of the healthiest and most intact watersheds in Minnesota (and Wisconsin), home to a lot of rare and sensitive aquatic insects and fish, unusual plants and a nationally and globally significant community of freshwater mussels, which play a very important role in healthy river ecosystems.

The Mississippi River Headwaters
is the headwaters of the largest river system in North America –draining 43 percent of the continental U.S. In addition to state lands such as Itasca State Park, it contains most of the Chippewa National Forest, as well as many of Minnesota’s most important fishing and recreational lakes including those in the Brainerd Lakes area. It is also the drinking water source for millions of people in St. Cloud, Minneapolis, St. Paul and communities downstream.

The rivers of southeast Minnesota are some of the highest quality and most biodiverse habitats in the state. Coldwater streams that support native brook trout and a host of forest, small prairie and bluff communities unique to the Driftless Area that includes Southeast Minnesota are just a few of the natural features in this scenic landscape that is beloved by residents and visitors alike.

nature.org:

You’re currently working on a project studying how climate change could impact the streams that flow into Lake Superior. Can you tell us a little bit about what you hope to learn and why it’s important?

Kristen Blann:

We know that the cold water streams flowing to Lake Superior from Minnesota’s North Shore are especially vulnerable to climate change because they are mainly fed by surface water, lakes and wetlands. Combined with land use changes and other human impacts, climate change threatens to significantly alter these streams and wetlands and the many benefits they provide to fish and other aquatic life, not to mention local communities and economies.

Our research is designed to better understand these streams and how they will respond to use and management under different climate change scenarios. What we learn will help decision-makers with land and water use planning, stream management and restoration so we can keep these streams healthy and resilient for fish and people even as our climate changes in the future.

nature.org:

Recent studies by University of Minnesota scientists show that 250,000 acres of grasslands, wetlands and forests in Minnesota have been converted to row crops in recent years. What impact is this having on lakes and rivers, and what is the Conservancy trying to do about it?

Kristen Blann:

When forests, wetlands and grasslands are converted to corn and other row crops, the amount of nitrates and phosphorus (which come from fertilizers) in surface and groundwater, as well as soil erosion, goes up. High nitrate levels in the water can lead to serious health impacts to people, and are also harmful for fish, mussels and other aquatic life. Likewise, excess phosphorus can drive algal blooms, reduce lake clarity and alter lake food webs. In a place like the Brainerd Lakes area, which depends on clean water for fishing and boating and the revenue that both residents and tourists contribute to the community, clean water is not just a luxury, it is essential.

The Conservancy is working with partners in many ways to try to address the problem. Examples include strategic purchases of land and easements to protect forests, grasslands, and wetlands that serve as important groundwater recharge and surface water filtering areas; influencing state policy on buffers and groundwater withdrawals; and working with counties and agricultural agencies to encourage best management practices that reduce nutrient and soil loss from agricultural and forest land.

nature.org:

What other interesting freshwater projects are you working on?

Kristen Blann:

I’ve recently joined a Conservancy team that is developing a global water fund toolbox. A water fund is an investor-driven financial tool that allows water users to invest collectively in the conservation of key lands upstream. The Conservancy is using water funds in many parts of the world to create predictable sources of funding that can be used to sustain water quality and availability. The online toolbox we’re creating will provide Conservancy staff and partners with case studies and other information on how to scope, design, initiate, operate and monitor a water fund.

nature.org:

Why are you passionate about freshwater conservation?

Kristen Blann:

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved being outside near water: fishing, swimming, hiking, kayaking and canoeing. Growing up, I used to spend every free moment down by the stream in the woods behind our house catching crayfish and fishing for sunfish. I was also a competitive swimmer as a kid and was practically a fish myself in the summer. It’s hard to overstate the importance of water to nature or to us! Freshwater is an increasingly limited resource and threatened in many ways. I believe we all have to do our best to take care of the things that matter most to us. So I’m doing what I can for the lakes, rivers, streams and water that have always been so important to me.


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