Columbia River Calling

The Challenge of Defining Ecosystem-Based Function

Yesterday, on Day 3 of my week long lead up to the 50th anniversary of the Columbia River Treaty, I realized that a blog post a day was a little ambitious.  I should be able to reach my goal and appreciate you reading my posts.  Today I tackle the topic of ecosystem-based function.

The Columbia River Treaty focuses on optimizing two benefits through joint management of the river by Canada and the US: flood control (now referred to as flood risk management) and hydropower generation.  While basin residents utilize a myriad of other benefits from the river in areas such as irrigation, water supply, navigation, and recreation, ecological costs and benefits of river management have taken center stage in many of the conversations around the Treaty.  A term for the various ecological and environmental values emerged during the Treaty reviews: ecosystem-based function (or ecosystem function).  This begs the question:

What is the definition for ‘ecosystem-based function?’

For fun, I did a Google image search of the terms “ecosystem-based function” and “ecosystem function.”  The results were a series of complicated diagrams and figures with webs made of various inter-connected parts (a screen grab of the results serves as the featured image for this post).  The US Regional Recommendation uses the term, ecosystem-based function, but does not define it. If you talk to different people in the US and Canada they will likely define the term differently.  Some might say that current requirements under the Biological Opinion for recovering salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin serves as the foundation for ecosystem-based function in the US.  Others might say it is same as ecosystem-based management.  Others might agree with the definition presented by the Columbia Basin Tribes coalition in June 2013, which states that ecosystem-based function includes:

“[1] Increased spring and summer flows resulting in a more natural hydrograph; Higher and more stable headwater reservoir levels; [2] Restoring and maintaining fish passage to historical habitats; [3] Higher river flows during dry years; [4] Lower late summer water temperature; [5] Reconnected floodplains throughout the river including a reconnected lower river estuary ecosystem as well as reduced salt water intrusion during summer and fall; [6] Columbia River plume and near shore ocean enhanced through higher spring and summer flows and lessened duration of hypoxia; and, [7] An adaptive and flexible suite of river operations responsive to a great variety of changing environmental conditions, such as climate change.”

Why does a definition of ecosystem-based function matter in the Treaty reviews?

Concern over a lack of a definition for ecosystem-based function is seen in the public comments on the Working Draft and Draft versions of the US Regional Recommendation.  Some commenters expressed that it was hard to support the topic without a clear definition.  I would like to offer both pros and cons to having a working definition of the term during the Treaty reviews.


  • It creates negotiating space – If the two countries decide to modify the Treaty (or even in their efforts to define the procedures for Called Upon), it helps to not be locked into positions. Not having a set definition for ecosystem-based function allows the two countries to negotiate a mutually agreed upon definition, which is much more likely to be accepted by the US and Canada.
  • It allows the term to evolve with our ever increasing scientific knowledge – We know a lot more about the Columbia River system now than we did 50+ years ago, particularly in the area of ecology. That knowledge base will only continue to grow and may contradict what we thought we know now.  A looser, more general term may allow our management efforts to improve with the science and help prevent us from being trapped in a management scheme that is based on outdated information.


  • Miscommunication is possible – If the term is not explicitly defined, different people are going to assume it means different things.  If they are not on the same page when discussing a topic, then they may misunderstand one another.  Miscommunication has the potential to harm the relationships that are important to reaching and supporting management decisions.
  • People and organizations are less likely to support something they don’t understand – As evidenced by some of the Draft US Regional Recommendation public comments, without a firm understanding of the ecosystem-based function concept, some are wary of supporting it. They want to know what they are supporting or agreeing to before making that commitment.
  • If it is not defined, will it be taken into consideration? – I think there is some concern that in not explicitly defining the term, that either the concept will not be included in future river management (or potential Treaty discussion) or that it will be defined later by others who have a different view of the term.  That is, by not defining the term now, some fear they will not have a voice in future conversations about what ecosystem-based function includes.

What is your definition of ecosystem-based function?  What do you see as other pros and cons of having a set definition for the term (at this point in the Treaty review)?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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