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NatureNet Fellowship Advances Northwestern University Partnership With The Nature Conservancy

Colin Phillips, postdoctoral fellow, receives NatureNet Fellowship

Julianne Beck | April 10, 2018
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Northwestern University researchers are bringing new understandings to the management of large river systems in collaboration with the world’s leading conservation organization, The Nature Conservancy. The project is led by Colin Phillips, postdoctoral fellow in Northwestern’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the recipient of a NatureNet Fellowship awarded by the Conservancy. The fellowship will yield tools to assess how climate change, land development, and hydropower development alter the timing, magnitude, and duration of river flow and sediment erosion. Phillips developed the winning proposal along with his Northwestern mentors; Aaron Packman, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Northwestern Center for Water Research, and Daniel Horton, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and principal investigator in the Climate Change Research Group at Northwestern.

The NatureNet Science Fellows Program is in its third year, pushing conservation science into new areas that embrace existing and emerging technologies and disciplines. NatureNet Science Fellows work on groundbreaking research to address challenges at the interface of climate, conservation, business, technology, and people. 

The fellowship focuses on Colombia’s Magdalena River Basin (MRB), which produces 80 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and generates 75 percent of the country’s agricultural production. The area is home to abundant native plant and animal species, and is the main source of drinking water for 48 million people. In addition, the Magdalena River is the cultural heart of Colombia. Phillips will analyze existing data from the region to better understand how the river flow influences natural habitats on land and water.

“One of the unique things in Colombia on the Magdalena River is that this river has almost a continuous connection with its floodplains—large wetlands that sustain a lot of biodiversity on either side of the river called cienegas . . . and in a sense they are being vastly undervalued,” said Phillips.

While existing models are adept at using annual metrics of river flow—information that contributes to calculations on the economic value of the system—they are unable to incorporate the variability of the flow and related sediment movement which are important to the health of the cienegas, according to Phillips. “Part of what we are doing is trying to understand the connectedness of the network and also, if climate is going to change [in this region], how is that going to affect the variability of the flows.” As the Conservancy moves ahead with local partners to develop a sustainable management plan for the region, particularly in the face of threats from a growing human population and a changing climate, this fellowship work will offer essential insights and tools for ongoing evaluation.

Phillips and his mentors from Northwestern and The Nature Conservancy are eager to move ahead. During their two years of work together they will advance existing models, guides on data assessment for rivers, and develop toolkits for river data analysis.

"One of the reasons it is particularly exciting, is that outputs from this work in the Magdalena River Basin can be scaled to other geographies where the Conservancy works around the world,"  — Emily Chapin, geospatial specialist for the Conservancy’s Global Water Team

"One of the reasons it is particularly exciting, is that outputs from this work in the Magdalena River Basin can be scaled to other geographies where the Conservancy works around the world," said Emily Chapin, geospatial specialist for the Conservancy’s Global Water Team. She is looking forward to the availability of more detailed tools and procedures. “It’s about empowering decision-makers to choose outcomes that have the least impacts on people and nature,” she added.

This fellowship is the newest component of a longstanding collaboration between the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) and The Nature Conservancy. The partnership is focused on supporting urban sustainability and biodiversity on regional, national, and global scales. Representatives from the Conservancy serve on ISEN’s Executive Council, while Bill Miller, a Northwestern professor of chemical and biological engineering, serves on the Board of Trustees for the Conservancy in Illinois. Projects such as a stormwater management study south of Chicago at Indian Boundary Prairies and the NatureNet Fellowship allow for an ongoing exchange.