Published December 12, 2018
Rock snot. Ice jam flooding. Nitrogen pollution. An influx of hydrilla, an invasive plant that resembles a bottlebrush.
Each fall, UB students in an environmental management class come up with creative proposals for tackling these and other challenges facing the Cattaraugus Creek watershed.
And year after year, stakeholders from the Seneca Nation of Indians and local, state and federal agencies visit UB to hear what the students have to say.
The course, “Integrated Environmental Management,” has been taught by Chris Renschler, associate professor of geography in the College of Arts and Sciences, for about 15 years. UB law professor Barry Boyer was also initially involved, but he retired from UB in 2009.
“The students give a fresh perspective, and I over the years have been able to entertain some of their ideas,” says Michael Gates, director of Seneca Nation Emergency Management, who has attended the students’ presentations annually since about 2010.
He notes the Seneca Nation is working on plans to develop wetlands, including areas revegetated with local plant species raised in a plant nursery, to help protect communities from flooding — concepts that a number of past classes, as well as outside experts, have proposed.
Cattaraugus Creek is an important environmental and economic resource. It’s known for fishing and rafting, and it flows through Zoar Valley, a popular hiking destination, before emptying into Lake Erie. The Cattaraugus Creek watershed encompasses all of the land that drains water into the creek — an area of about 550 square miles that includes parts of five Western New York counties and Seneca Nation territory.
The course and Renschler’s related research have helped bring attention to the watershed as a priority for conservation, sustainable development and community resilience.
Class presentations on Nov. 13 attracted an audience that included Gates from the Seneca Nation, as well as stakeholders from Erie County, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, New York Sea Grant, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Lake Erie Watershed Protection Alliance and Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper.
Each student gave a fast-paced, one-and-a-half-minute talk about current and innovative approaches for addressing a specific stakeholder problem. Afterward, the professionals provided feedback.
“It’s great to hear all the creative ideas,” says Michael Voorhees, a biologist with the Buffalo District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “It’s a chance to network with other stakeholders, see the issues that are within the watershed, and help the students.”
“The breadth of outside-of-the-box options that the students present is really interesting because we, as the stakeholders, have systematic ways of approaching problems,” says Margaux Valenti, a legal and program adviser for Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. “We try to be creative and innovative, but there are a lot of constraints, such as New York State law and processes within agencies. The students’ ideas are exciting to hear, even if they can’t always be implemented wholesale.”
One student proposal that drew an enthusiastic response for its creativity was using citizen science to monitor flooding. The presenter noted that low-cost resources are available through CrowdHydrology, a national project co-founded by UB hydrogeologist Chris Lowry, which provides technology that enables passersby to text stream levels to researchers.
The course highlights the complexity of managing natural resources.
Renschler expands beyond Western New York to discuss integrated watershed management approaches to addressing extreme events in other parts of the U.S., such as the 2011 Schoharie and 2017 Houston floods, caused by hurricanes Irene and Harvey, respectively.
Locally, the class shows just how complicated managing challenges within a single watershed can be. In addition to the Seneca Nation and county, state and federal governments, towns and villages within the Cattaraugus Creek watershed also have a stake in how environmental problems and disasters are handled. Decisions can impact homeowners and regional industries, such as agriculture, recreation and fishing.
“One of the problems that I see is that as academics, we don’t engage enough with the stakeholders,” Renschler says. “I think this human component of environmental management is crucial. Scientists need to be able to approach problems with a realistic view, with an understanding of what is actually happening on the ground and in communities.”
Renschler’s course facilitates this communication. The professionals provided student presenters with a realistic view of how proposals might play out in real life. The stakeholders praised students’ innovation, while also noting that ideas can’t be implemented without funding, and that some approaches — such as introducing invasive fish to control invasive aquatic plants — might disrupt ecosystems in unintended ways.
“I thought it was a really great way to prepare us for real-life situations and jobs that we might have in the near future,” says Virginia Headd, a senior environmental geosciences student in the class.
Headd is interested in attending medical school and pursuing a career in environmental health. She presented on water-quality issues, discussing recommendations for reducing pollution from fertilizer and other toxins while taking farmers’ needs into account.
“Speaking in front of the stakeholders and people from the DEC and other government agencies was definitely nerve-wracking, but really good preparation,” Headd says. “The constructive criticism was really good. I think that it was honest.”