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Planning for uncertainty: A new National CASC-led publication outlines ways to build adaptable management plans for freshwater plants and animals.

Healthy freshwater ecosystems are essential for human well-being, but the loss in plant and animal diversity in these ecosystems is accelerating all over the world, creating uncertain futures for freshwater health.  

The “Emergency Recovery Plan” for freshwater biodiversity, published in 2020 and co-authored by National CASC fish biologist Abigail Lynch, focused on six key actions that include (1) accelerating the implementation of environmental flows, (2) improving water quality, (3) protecting and restoring critical habitats, (4) managing exploitation of species and riverine aggregates, (5) preventing and controlling invasive species, (6) and safeguarding and restoring freshwater connectivity. Each of these actions have led to successful outcomes around the world. But can management plans adapt and prepare for unexpected challenges?  

A new publication in Environmental Reviews, led by Lynch, explains how to “future-proof” the six key actions of the Emergency Recovery Plan so that they are flexible in the face of certainly uncertain futures. 

Future-proofing management plans requires identifying possible futures and then taking steps to reduce the problems that may arise with each possibility. Future-proofing strategies have been applied in business, governance, law, and to other environmental challenges. The concept is like diversification in finance. Investors build diversified portfolios by investing funds in a variety of stocks to reduce their overall risk rather than investing in just one risky asset. 

“We don't know what the future will hold,” says Lynch. “Future-proofing is essentially acknowledging this uncertainty and using strategies to be more nimble and agile once we realize things aren't going as we had expected.” 

For each of the six actions in the Emergency Recovery Plan for freshwater biodiversity, the researchers lay out anticipated changes, possible future-proofing strategies for those changes, and examples of strategies that have been used. For example, to improve freshwater quality while simultaneously dealing with an anticipated increase in wastewater, management plans may work to reduce untreated wastewater inputs, divide rainwater and sewage pipe networks, and increase permeable surfaces within cities.  

Future-proofing requires an acceptance that uncertainty in the future is a reality, no matter how many steps are taken to minimize it. In this sense, future-proofing is a mindset, “it’s putting future uncertainty front and center,” says Lynch. “Building in contingency planning to shift strategies quickly when our current approaches are no longer achieving our objectives.” 

Concepts and case studies from this publication can help managers of freshwater ecosystems develop more resilient plans for preserving freshwater biodiversity and function. 

The full citation for this publication is:  

Abigail J. Lynch, Amanda A. Hyman, Steven J. Cooke, Samantha J. Capon, Paul A. Franklin, Sonja C. Jähnig, Matthew McCartney, Nguyễn Phú Hòa, Margaret Awuor Owuor, Jamie Pittock, Michael J. Samways, Luiz G. M. Silva, E. Ashley Steel, and David Tickner. Future-proofing the emergency recovery plan for freshwater biodiversity. Environmental Reviews. e-First 

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