, Volume 657, Issue 1, pp 263–278 | Cite as

Implications of global change for the maintenance of water quality and ecological integrity in the context of current water laws and environmental policies

  • Anna T. Hamilton
  • Michael T. Barbour
  • Britta G. Bierwagen


There is both a fundamental and applied need to define expectations of changes in aquatic ecosystems due to global changes. It is clear that programs using biological indicators and reference-based comparisons as the foundation for assessments are likely to make increasingly erroneous decisions if the impacts of global change are ignored. Global changes influence all aspects of water resource management decisions based on comparisons to reference conditions with impacts making it increasingly problematic to find an “undisturbed” water body to define acceptable conditions of ecological integrity. Using a more objective scale for characterizing reference conditions that is anchored in expectations for what would be attainable under undisturbed conditions, such as the Biological Condition Gradient (BCG) is one approach that maintains consistent definitions for ecosystem conditions. In addition, protection of reference stations and of unique or undisturbed aquatic resources is imperative, though the scope of protection options is limited. Projections indicate that encroaching land use will affect 36–48% of current reference surface waters by the year 2100. The interpretation of biological indicators is also at risk from global changes. Distinguishing taxonomic attributes based on temperature or hydrologic preferences can be used to enhance the ability to make inferences about global change effects compared to other stressors. Difficulties arise in categorizing unique indicators of global changes, because of similarities in some of the temperature and hydrologic effects resulting from climate change, land use changes, and water removal. In the quest for biological indicators that might be uniquely sensitive to one global stressor as an aid in recognizing probable causes of ecosystem damage, the potential similarities in indicator responses among global and landscape-scale changes needs to be recognized as a limiting factor. Many aspects of global changes are not tractable at the local to regional scales at which water quality regulations are typically managed. Our ability to implement water policies through bioassessment will require a shift in the scale of assessment, planning, and adaptations in order to fulfill our ultimate regulatory goals of preserving good water quality and ecological integrity. Providing clear expectations of effects due to global change for key species and communities in freshwater ecosystems will help water quality programs achieve their goals under changing environmental conditions.


Global change Climate change Water law Environmental policy Bioassessment 



The authors would like to thank L. Yuan, R. Novak, K. Metchis, and several anonymous reviewers for their comments, which greatly improved this article. The authors would also like to thank R. Cantilli of the U.S. EPA for supporting some of our initial thinking on climate change implications to water policy. The Global Change Research Program in the National Center for Environmental Assessment in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development provided financial support for the analyses contributing to this article through contract # GS-10F-0268K, DO 1107 to Tetra Tech, Inc. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and they do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


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Copyright information

© US Government: US Environmental Protection Agency 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anna T. Hamilton
    • 1
  • Michael T. Barbour
    • 1
  • Britta G. Bierwagen
    • 2
  1. 1.Center for Ecological SciencesTetra Tech, Inc.Santa FeUSA
  2. 2.Global Change Research ProgramNational Center for Environmental Assessment, Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection AgencyWashingtonUSA

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