Discover Your Island

New Web Tool from Researchers at HRI Supports Healthy Estuaries

June 23, 2016

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CORPUS CHRISTI — With climate change looming, the pressure to properly manage freshwater resources in a way that supports growing cities while sustaining a healthy environment has never been greater. Researchers at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi announced the launch of a new ecosystem-based web tool created to educate the public and aid in freshwater management decisions, Freshwater Inflow Tools (FIT).

FIT, which is available free online at FreshwaterInflow.org, is a web-based tool created to support coastal management decisions by providing the best-available science on freshwater inflows, the flowing water from rivers and streams necessary to sustain healthy estuaries. The tool debuted at the Gulf of Mexico Alliance All Hands Meeting, a gathering of Gulf scientists, natural resource managers and agency officials, held June 14-16 in Baton Rouge.

“States like Florida and Texas have been grappling with environmental flow issues — the amount of flowing water necessary to sustain healthy aquatic environments — for decades, but with climate change looming it has become an issue of international concern,” said HRI Endowed Chair for Ecosystems and Modeling Dr. Paul Montagna said. “Human growth requires more water resource development, and that water resource development changes landscapes and water flow.”

Estuaries are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet, providing an estimated $14 trillion worth of ecosystem goods and services. In Texas they house commercially and recreationally important species such as blue crab, red drum, southern flounder and spotted sea trout and diverse habitats like tidal flats, salt marshes, seagrass beds, oyster reefs and mangroves.

Estuaries can’t be sustained without freshwater inflows from rivers and streams, which provide low-salinity nurseries for fisheries and carry the nutrients, sediment and organic material that fuels their productivity. But global climate change and human populations are putting increasing pressure on these ecosystems as droughts deepen and humans divert more and more fresh water away from rivers and streams to sustain growing communities.

Resource managers are traditionally trained in issues of water quality but not necessarily quantity, Montagna said. With increasing concerns about water quantity issues, a need arose for a clearinghouse of information about freshwater inflows that would work on a variety of levels: For a concerned member of the public trying to learn about what freshwater inflows are and why they matter; a natural resource manager grappling with the issue in his or her work for the first time; or an experienced scientist looking to dig down into the databases housed on the site. And that’s where the Freshwater Inflows Tool (FIT) comes in.

Using the Texas estuaries as a study area, FIT provides information on freshwater inflow, our estuarine ecosystems and how these estuaries are affected by changing inflows.

“We wanted to create a place where you can quickly dig down into key issues, because only with proper management can we provide people with the water resources they need and secure the sustainability of our rivers and estuaries,” Montagna said.

The latest version of FIT and its website, FreshwaterInflow.org, was funded by a grant from the Mitchell Foundation. Initial funding to synthesize data and house the tool came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.