By Bev Clark for the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation

I recently heard an ad for a major bank that claimed its products were the key to a sustainable future. I also remember when a patch of cattails in the corner of a parking lot was passed off as sustainable development. That was, at best, an effort towards lower impact development. Is there even such a thing as sustainable development? I tend to doubt it. Still, we need to think about sustainability with each management decision that we make and especially as it relates to ecosystem integrity.

To incorporate the concept of sustainability into management goals, it is important to be able to clearly define what you mean by “sustainable”. Sustainable development or sustainable futures are concepts that are lined on both sides by tiger traps. However, if you want to sustain ecosystem integrity then it might not be so difficult to come up with a definition of sustainable or to describe what it is you are trying to sustain. The goal, in this case, would be to sustain the integrity of the ecosystem.

In some theaters of resource management, such as with fisheries, the inclusion of the concept of sustainability is an integral part of the process. Fish should be allowed to recruit and grow to the best of their ability so that we can eat as many of them as possible. The goal to sustain a reasonable harvest is more or less straightforward. We need to monitor the situation to make sure that we don’t upset this apple cart by eating too many fish or by allowing some external process to affect the ability of the fish to maintain a high level of production—habitat loss and stuff like that. On the other hand, there are aspects of resource management that are difficult to assess within the context of sustainability. Invasive species is a good example. Your goal might be to have no further incidents of invasive species ,which would protect ecosystem integrity. The question is how far can we go with these invading species before we lose the ability to sustain the integrity of the ecosystems that we are trying to protect?

The 2nd edition of the Rainy-Lake of the Woods State of the Basin Report (2014) listed five key concerns, namely:

  1. Nutrients and algae
  2. Climate change
  3. Invasive species
  4. Water levels and erosion, and
  5. Contaminants

These same concerns were carried forward into the International Joint Commission (IJC) Water Quality Plan of Study and into a recent IJC initiative to develop water quality objectives and alert levels for the watershed.

Let’s look at each of these and see if there is a place for a conversation about sustainability.

Nutrients and algae – There are several initiatives underway to identify target loads to the Rainy River that will improve water quality in the south end of Lake of the Woods and these would presumably involve an acceptable condition with respect to nuisance algal blooms. In this way an endpoint has been described that we hope can be sustained. The big question is whether or not climate change will play ball.

Climate change – There are two parts to this climate change concern. In the first place, we don’t want to sustain it, we want to get rid of it to stop the devastation to our planet. That comes with a set of goals that limit warming. These are usually in the form of do-not-exceed temperature increases. Greenhouse effects have been noted since the late 1800s and continued alarm has been demonstrated through the 1950s to the 80s with the final push to protocols in the 1990s…and still the problem worsens. You might think we are not going to get a handle on this which brings us to the second part – which is dealing with the stress multiplying effects of climate change in every aspect of ecosystem integrity sustainability. The gigantic elephant in the science room.

Invasive species – This is a tough challenge. It is noble to have a no invasives goal, but they are difficult to stop completely. They have potential to do great harm to the ecosystem and it is almost impossible to keep them out, such that we can’t really address the threats from the standpoint of sustainability. We can only direct our best efforts towards minimizing the potential for damage to the ecosystem.

Water levels and erosion – This one is a bit easier. We can adopt rule curves for water levels that describe water level envelopes that outline a sustainable condition. It’s about avoiding the extremes and these tools work well for the most part. Where is that elephant?

Contaminants – Regulators can provide a list of concentrations that describe levels that would be considered too high for any given contaminant. It’s not really a sustainability thing but you could consider that any ecosystem that is free from contaminant exceedances is sustainable with respect to contaminants.

Fisheries – I am going to throw fish in here because there is some recent evidence that they may be impacted in the northern sectors of Lake of the Woods. When it comes to fish, or anything else that is harvested, it is relatively easy to describe a sustainable condition. Fisheries managers use tools that describe recruitment, growth, yield, harvest, etc., and these are all designed to tell us how well the fish are doing and what the impacts are of us catching them and eating them. The goal is to sustain the best possible balance.

To sum this up, sustainability is not a word that you can just throw out there because it sounds responsible. We need to think about how we want to use the concept of sustainability, and we should because no one wants to be in a position where it becomes obvious that “this is not sustainable!”