Ecological drought: Accounting for the non-human impacts of water shortage in the upper Missouri Headwaters Basin, Montana, USA

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Abstract

Water laws and drought plans are used to prioritize and allocate scarce water resources. Both have historically been human-centric, failing to account for non-human water needs. In this paper, we examine the development of instream flow legislation and the evolution of drought planning to highlight the growing concern for the non-human impacts of water scarcity. Utilizing a new framework for ecological drought, we analyzed five watershed-scale drought plans in southwestern Montana, USA to understand if, and how, the ecological impacts of drought are currently being assessed. We found that while these plans do account for some ecological impacts, it is primarily through the narrow lens of impacts to fish as measured by water temperature and streamflow. The latter is typically based on the same ecological principles used to determine instream flow requirements. We also found that other resource plans in the same watersheds (e.g., Watershed Restoration Plans, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Watershed Assessments or United States Forest Service (USFS) Forest Plans) identify a broader range of ecological drought risks. Given limited resources and the potential for mutual benefits and synergies, we suggest greater integration between various planning processes could result in a more holistic consideration of water needs and uses across the landscape.

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McEvoy, J., Bathke, D. J., Burkardt, N., Cravens, A. E., Haigh, T., Hall, K. R., … Wickham, E. (2018). Ecological drought: Accounting for the non-human impacts of water shortage in the upper Missouri Headwaters Basin, Montana, USA. Resources, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.3390/resources7010014

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