With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Jacquelyn Duke is a senior lecturer in biology at Baylor University and a member of Baylor’s Center for Reservoir and Aquatic Systems Research (CRASR), where she is the resident riparian researcher. Her current research focuses on stream and riparian ecohydrology, particularly the interplay between trees, streams and human impacts.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: What does a riparian ecologist do?
Jacquelyn Duke: The riparian zone is the little strip of trees and shrubs that grow along rivers. They’re specifically there because they’re adapted to the soil moisture levels, the flooding regime, and what goes on in the river.
It’s actually a very small part of the larger landscape, but it’s crucially important in its functioning in the landscape. A riparian ecologist then studies the response of the woody vegetation — or trees. I study the growth of trees and their response to flows along the river.
Trib+Water: What interested you in becoming a riparian ecologist?
Duke: I can trace my interest in water all the way back to my childhood. I grew up on a ranch in the Hill Country and my playground were creeks. I think my love of water, and what goes on in and around the streams, was developed at a very young age.
As I’ve moved through my field and honed in on what my passion is, I always find myself coming back to water. Eventually, as a biologist, I wanted to find the living component of that ecosystem and look at how the trees respond to that water.
As an undergraduate, I did my thesis on water chemistry. Then, as a graduate student, I started getting interested in tree rings and that was really the start of the riparian focus.
Trees actually act as storytellers to tell you about the history of a landscape. I first realized that as a graduate student. In fact, my first work with tree rings was to take some of the trees from the ranch where I grew up.
Looking at those tree rings was interesting because I remember thinking, “Wow, in the 1950s, these trees did not grow.” I remember going to my father and asking what was going on the 1950s, and that was the first I really learned about the massive drought.
Then I started meeting with other dendrochronologists and I realized that you can see that drought across trees across the entire southwest United States. To me, that was so fascinating because I grew up on that ranch and I didn’t know about that until I saw it in the tree rings.
So that fascinated me and really drew me toward trees, and I think with my interest already in water, it was just a perfect marriage to study trees and water together.
Trib+Water: What kind of research are you conducting in Texas and where are you conducting it?
Duke: I’ve actually been involved for the past several years in some of the Senate Bill 3 Environmental Flow Study. That was legislation that was put into place for environmental flow standards, which is basically the idea that we need to maintain certain flows for the natural ecosystem in rivers.
That mandate had to be done for major river basins in Texas, and I did some of the initial studies that helped to establish the flow standards that were put forth. Since then, they’ve established flow standards in some of these basins.
I’ve been working with a team of scientists and we were tasked with validating the flow standards. My aspect is that I look at the riparian responses to the flows to validate whether those set flow standards meet the needs of the riparian system.
So we validate that and then are working toward creating methodologies to continue to monitor those flow standards for the long term. I’ve worked on the Brazos, Guadalupe, and San Antonio river basins. I worked on helping set those standards, and then I’m also on the teams that are helping validate.
Trib+Water: What are the biggest issues facing riparian areas in Texas?
Duke: I think that one of the problems is that we don’t understand the value of riparian systems.
If you were to look from an aerial photo you would see they’re a teeny tiny strip along a river. And so a lot of people misunderstand the size of them to be an indicator of their functionality or their importance and that’s absolutely not true.
Riparian zones are very small strips along the stream and what happens is that if we don’t understand the value that they add to both the landscape and the river, people tend to remove them.
Riparian zones are ecosystems that are adapted to a disturbance regime. They’re highly adapted to the flooding that goes on along streams. Therefore, any modifications to the flooding regime to the flow of the river can have a detrimental affect.
Loss of flow to rivers is another major detriment that riparian zones are facing as we modify stream flow or we cut rivers down.
I think education is so important that we need to understand not to remove that natural buffer zone along rivers. It’s crucial.