Despite ideals, people don’t really like reducing inequality, study finds

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Most Americans say they want a more equal society, yet policies aimed at increasing equality for disadvantaged groups in higher education, corporations, government, and elsewhere continue to generate backlash.

This backlash has been blamed on a range of causes—including majority white Americans’ fears of losing their status, political partisanship, and overt prejudice.

A study by Berkeley Haas researchers, publishing today in the journal Science Advances, offers a new take, identifying an underlying cause of this opposition that cuts across ideologies: People in advantaged positions view equality itself as harmful, and tend to think that inequality benefits them.

“We found that people think of the world in zero-sum terms, so that a gain for one group must necessarily be a loss for another,” says study co-author Derek Brown, a Berkeley Haas doctoral student. “This seems to be a cognitive mistake that everyone is susceptible to, not just a vociferous minority that has antipathy toward any certain group.”

The paper, co-authored by Berkeley Haas assistant management professor Drew Jacoby-Senghor along with Columbia University Ph.D. student Isaac Raymundo, helps explain why even people with strong egalitarian beliefs may still block policies that reduce disparities. Beyond the threat of losing status, people in advantaged groups are prone to the perception that greater equality means less for them—to the point where they’ll vote for policies that cause them and increase inequality over policies that benefit them and reduce inequality, the study found.

“In our experiment, it was more important to people how well off they were relative to other groups than how they were doing in absolute terms,” Jacoby-Senghor says. “They view a loss in relative advantage as an absolute loss, even when it’s a clear material gain.”

Beyond race and ethnicity

In prior research, Brown found non-Latino white and Asian people—who make up the majority in —see policies that increase minority representation in a graduate program as reducing their chances of admission, even explicitly win-win policies that also increase the number of admission spots for the majority.

In the new paper, Brown and colleagues go beyond race and ethnicity to other types of real-world inequalities, such as the and the hiring gap for those with disability status or a criminal record. They also studied voters’ perceptions of a 2020 California ballot initiative to overturn the state’s ban on affirmative action, and even concocted scenarios involving disparities between fictional teams with random names. Time and again, across all ideologies, study participants in advantaged groups rejected policies to reduce inequality on the false belief that they would end up with less access to resources.

Zero-sum game

Past research has often focused on policies that are zero-sum, such as hiring fewer in order to hire more members of minority groups, making it hard to parse perceptions from actual impact. Brown and Jacoby-Senghor asked people to only assess non-zero-sum policies that help disadvantaged groups without taking anything away from—and even improving things for—advantaged groups. Across all experiments, they controlled for five well-studied forms of ideological opposition to equality: political conservatism, preference for hierarchical social structures, belief that society is zero-sum, system-justifying beliefs, and explicit prejudice. While they found some of them correlated with perceptions of policies, variations in ideology did not explain people’s negative view of greater equality.

In one scenario, for example, non-Latino white study participants were told, “In 2018, white homebuyers received roughly $386.4 billion in mortgage loans from banks, while Latino homebuyers only received around $12.6 billion in mortgage loans overall.” The participants were then presented with proposals for banks to either increase the amount of loans for Latinos, decrease the amount, or leave it unchanged, while maintaining the loans for white homebuyers. Even so, participants misperceived the proposal to increase the amount for Latino buyers as lowering their own chances of getting a loan, and thought decreasing the amount available to Latinos would improve their chances.

This misperception also held true when the researchers tested win-win policies that benefit both majority and minority groups. A mention of societal benefits also did not cause a shift: White participants in one study thought a policy that would reduce inequality by offering more loans for Latinos and benefit society by stimulating mortgage investment for all groups would reduce their ability to get a loan, while they perceived a policy that would decrease loans to Latinos—worsening inequality—and decrease overall mortgage investment as not harming them.

Even when white participants were directly told that anyone who wanted access to a loan could get one and there was no limit on the amount available, they continued to believe that also boosting loans to Latinos would slightly reduce their chances of getting a loan.

“The causes and solutions to inequality are complex, but even when we simplified it and bent over backwards to make sure everyone is better off in these scenarios, people still found a way to believe they’ll be harmed,” Jacoby-Senghor says.

In fact, the only thing that erased majority participants’ misperceptions were proposals that enhanced equality between members of their own group—such as when a group of male participants considered reducing pay disparity between men, rather than between men and women.

Predicting voting

The researchers examined this dynamic in a real-world field study, surveying California voters on Proposition 16, which would have overturned the state’s ban on considering race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, education, and contracting.

“We wanted to see if this misperception about equality predicted how people would vote,” Brown said.

It did. They found that the majority of whites and Asians believed the measure would reduce their access to education and job opportunities. The more strongly they held that belief, the less they supported Prop.16. In fact, a belief that the measure would harm their chances was a stronger predictor of how people would vote than their political party or any other ideological variable. In a follow-up survey two weeks after the first, researchers found that people who switched to a no vote reported a growing perception that the measure would hurt them.

Rattlers vs Eagles

In their final experiments, the researchers tested whether majority members of completely fictional groups would reject more equitable outcomes based on a misperception of harm. In contrast with prior experiments that only involved majority group members, the researchers recruited a racially and ethnically diverse subject pool. They told them they were assigned based on a personality test to a team called the Rattlers, which would compete against the Eagles in a problem-solving challenge (in reality, this personality test did not determine group assignment and the Eagles didn’t exist). Participants were told that the Rattlers had received more bonuses than the Eagles in the past couple of weeks, and so they were asked to consider more equal ways to dispute bonuses.

Even with made-up groups, the same dynamic held: Members of the Rattlers rejected a win-win proposal that would give monetary bonuses to 5 more Rattlers and 50 more Eagles—still leaving the Rattlers ahead—and instead chose a lose-lose plan, forfeiting 5 bonuses and taking 50 from the Eagles. “This policy harmed everyone and made the bonus distribution more unequal,” the researchers point out.

In a final twist, the researchers presented study participants with side-by-side scenarios that would either reduce or increase inequality without affecting their bonuses, so they could easily compare. They still perceived the equity-enhancing policy as harming their chances.

Implications

The findings shed new light on one of the foundational theories of social psychology, social identity theory, which posits that people tend to prefer relatively greater amounts of resources be allocated to their in-group than to an out-group. This preference is predicted by the misperception that reductions of relative advantage necessarily harm advantaged groups in absolute terms, according to the researchers.

Beyond theory, the findings are troubling given the massive social and economic costs of inequality, Brown says. Lost GDP from racial inequality has been estimated at $16 trillion, and the gender pay gap is estimated to reduce the global economy by about $160 trillion. People may fundamentally misunderstand how much disparities weigh down society as a whole, the researchers suggest.

This zero-sum view of equality is a roadblock that makers seeking to reduce disparities will need to grapple with, Brown says.

“Our research suggests that you can’t expect everyone to be on board and you should always expect there’s going to be a backlash,” he says. “The change itself has to be the justification.”

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Remote learning likely widened racial, economic achievement gap

“In high-poverty schools that were remote for more than half of 2021, the loss was about half of a school year’s worth of typical achievement growth,” explained Thomas Kane, who heads up the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard. Credit: Rose Lincoln/Harvard file photo

A new report on pandemic learning loss found that high-poverty schools both spent more weeks in remote instruction during 2020–21 and suffered large losses in achievement when they did so. Districts that remained largely in-person, however, lost relatively little ground. Experts predict the results will foreshadow a widening in measures of the nation’s racial and economic achievement gap.

The report was a joint effort of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research, and NWEA, a nonprofit research and educational services provider. It analyzed achievement data from 2.1 million students in 10,000 schools across 49 states and is the first in a series that will be tracking the impact of catch-up efforts over the next two years.

The Gazette spoke with economist Thomas Kane, Walter H. Gale Professor of Education and Economics at Harvard Graduate School of Education and center faculty director, about the findings. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q&A: Thomas Kane

GAZETTE: What is the magnitude of students’ learning loss due to the pandemic? Which school districts have been the most affected?

KANE: We found that districts that spent more weeks in remote instruction lost more ground than districts that returned to in-person instruction sooner. Anyone who has been teaching by Zoom would not be surprised by that. The striking and important finding was that remote instruction had much more in high-poverty schools. High-poverty schools were more likely to go remote and their students lost more when they did so. Both mattered, but the latter effect mattered more. To give you a sense of the magnitude: In high-poverty schools that were remote for more than half of 2021, the loss was about half of a school year’s worth of typical achievement growth.

GAZETTE: What is the percentage of students who have experienced learning loss in the U.S.?

KANE: There are 50 million students in the U.S. About 40%, or 20 million students, nationally were in schools that conducted classes remotely for less than four weeks, and 30%, or 15 million students, remained in remote instruction for more than 16 weeks. In other words, about 40% spent less than a month in remote instruction, but about 30% spent more than four months in remote instruction. It is the dramatic growth in educational inequity in those districts that remained remote that should worry us.

GAZETTE: Are we at risk of losing the educational gains of the last three decades? How could this impact the racial achievement gap?

KANE: Over the last 30 years, there has been like a gradual closing in both the Black-white and Hispanic-white achievement gaps. The has been administering an assessment to a nationally representative sample every couple of years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Gaps have been narrowing for the last 30 years.

The latest assessment was conducted between January and March of 2022. Our results imply that when those results come out later this year (likely in October, before the midterm election) there will be a decline nationally, especially in states where schools remained remote, and gaps will widen sharply for the first time in a generation. What we should be focused on now is ensuring that the widening gaps do not become permanent. By helping students catch up over the next few years, I hope we can reduce the gaps again when the next NAEP assessment is collected in 2024.

Interestingly, gaps in math achievement by race and school poverty did not widen in school districts in states such as Texas and Florida and elsewhere that remained largely in-person. Where schools remained in-person, gaps did not widen. Where schools shifted to remote learning, gaps widened sharply. Shifting to remote instruction was like turning a switch on a critical piece of our social infrastructure that we had taken for granted. Our findings imply that public schools truly are the “balance wheel of the social machinery,” as Horace Mann would say.

GAZETTE: In which ways can learning loss affect high school graduation and college application rates and students’ life opportunities?

KANE: Some observers are going to say that we are too focused on the decline in test scores. However, given past relationships between test scores and other life outcomes, we would expect the achievement declines to translate into lower high school graduation rates (since students may not have the math or reading skills required for upper-level courses), lower college-going rates, and lower earnings. Recall that not every group of students saw the same decline—high-poverty schools were more likely to go remote and suffered larger losses when they did so. To be more concrete, students in high-poverty schools that were remote for more than half of 2020–21 would be expected to see a 5% decline in average earnings over their career, given past relationships between test scores and earnings. That may not sound like much, but when calculating losses for all 50 million students in K-12 education in the U.S., it would amount to a $2 trillion decline in lifetime earnings. It’s in that context that the $190 billion that the federal government has provided in supplemental aid for schools since the pandemic began sounds like a good investment, if it could be used to reduce the losses.

GAZETTE: What should school districts and states do to help students recover from their learning losses?

KANE: School districts need to start by assessing the magnitude of their losses and then assembling a package of interventions that is commensurate with their losses. Districts that remained remote during 2020–21—especially the higher-poverty schools in those districts—lost the most ground and will need to spend more of their federal aid on academic recovery. It’s all about magnitudes. From prior to the pandemic, we have estimates of the impact of interventions such as high-dosage tutoring or summer school or double periods of math instruction. Each district should start this summer by taking the estimates of the impact of each of those interventions, multiply each by the share of students they plan to serve under each and make sure the sum of expected effects adds up to the size of the loss their students have suffered. That’s going to be an eye-opening calculation for most districts, since most districts I see are planning intensive interventions for 10 or 15%t of their students, some voluntary summer school—and that’s about it. A barely-more-than-normal recovery effort such as that is going to be nowhere near enough in many districts.

Here’s an example. The students in high-poverty schools that were remote for most of 2020–21 lost about 0.45 standard deviations in math. There are very few educational interventions that have ever been shown to have an impact that large. One example is high-dosage tutoring—which involves tutoring sessions two to three times per week in groups of one to four students with a trained tutor all year. Pre-pandemic research implied that such a program would generate about 0.38 standard deviations. In other words, a district could provide a high-quality tutor to every single one of the students in a high-poverty school and still not expect to make up the decline. Of course, given the inevitable problems of maintaining quality while scaling up such interventions, the expected impacts from pre-pandemic research are likely to be over-optimistic. But districts need to start with a plan, which is commensurate with their losses and then scale up or scale down as necessary over the next couple of years.

GAZETTE: The federal government gave $190 billion to schools across the country for academic recovery. Is that enough?

KANE: Based on our estimates, those dollars would be enough if school districts, especially the high-poverty school districts that were remote for much of 2021, were to spend nearly all of it on academic recovery. Unfortunately, a lot of those funds have been going to things that weren’t necessarily related to academic recovery. That’s why we’re trying to sound the alarm now before those dollars are committed to other things.

School districts have never been through a disruption of this magnitude before. School districts have until the end of 2024 to spend the federal aid for academic recovery. Most of the district plans I have seen are undersized. Of course, districts will eventually learn that their efforts are not sufficient. However, the great danger is that they will realize that too late—after they have committed the federal aid.

You wouldn’t try to patch a hole without making sure that the patch was as big as the hole. Very few school districts have done the math to figure out if the effect sizes of the interventions that they’re planning and the share of students to be served by each match the loss their have endured. Troublingly, there’s nothing about the federal process that requires that district plans are commensurate with their losses, even on paper.

It’s worse than that. The American Rescue Plan—passed in March 2021, before the magnitude of the losses were clear—only requires districts to spend 20% of the federal aid on academic recovery. Most districts seem to be following the federal guidance, and spending between 20 and 30% on academic recovery. That’s not going to be nearly enough in the lower-income districts that spent much of 2020–21 in remote instruction. Local business leaders, parents, and school boards need to engage with their and make sure that the district recovery plans are commensurate with the losses. If not, these achievement losses will become permanent.

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The worst polluters in the Arctic are not what you think

More and more shipping in the Arctic, including big transport tankers, poses challenges in this remote, pristine environment. Credit: MikhailSS / Shutterstock / NTB

More than 600 fishing vessels sail the icy waters of the Arctic. But just over two dozen big tankers are the worst offenders when it comes to air pollution in this vulnerable region.

In 2021, just 26 tankers cruised through Arctic waters, as compared to the hundreds of fishing vessels that also ply these rich fishing grounds.

But the giant tankers, which can be 300 meters long or more, account for the largest share of CO2 emissions by far, a new analysis shows. While combined ship traffic in the Arctic region emitted 2.8 million metric tons of CO2 in 2019, the tankers accounted for 788,000 metric tons (almost 28%).

“Even though fishing vessels far outnumber natural gas (LNG) tankers, gas tankers are responsible for nearly 30% of all CO2 emissions from ship traffic in the Arctic,” said Ekaterina Kim, an associate professor at NTNU’s Department of Marine Technology, who conducted the study. “And the number of tankers operating in the Arctic has increased from 4 to 26 since 2017.”

The numbers matter because climate change is shrinking the Arctic ice cover, making it easier for ships to travel along the northern coast of Russia, known as the Northern Sea Route. The most current estimates suggest that most of the Arctic Ocean could become ice-free during the summer as early as 2050.

Any increase in will increase the pollutant load in the Arctic, which is one of the most vulnerable environments on the planet. The UN Ocean Decade began last year, with a focus on clean oceans. But as both summer and winter ice cover shrinks, more and more ships of all varieties, including and fishing vessels, are finding their way north and increasing their operational season— releasing increasing amounts of CO2 and other air pollutants, Kim said.

Ship traffic and emissions data

Kim conducted her research using Arctic Ship Traffic Data (ASTD), which is collected by the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) group, one of six working groups of the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum that works on issues facing the eight Arctic nations and indigenous people of the north.

“The overall objective of our team at the Department of Marine Technology is to contribute with new knowledge needed for safety of maritime activities in the Arctic as well as for protection of the Arctic marine environment through reductions in emissions and supervisory risk control,” Kim said.

Shipping traffic has increased substantially over the last decade. The white lines on the maps show the actual tracks of ships greater than 100,000 gross tonnage. The maps were made based on data from the Arctic Council Working Group on the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment’s Arctic Ship Traffic Data (ASTD) System. Credit: Ekaterina Kim, NTNU

PAME reports that shipping in the Arctic increased by 25% between 2013 and 2019. Kim’s assessment mainly looked at what is called the Polar Code area. The Polar Code area is defined as the waters north of 60 degrees N, but excluding areas around Iceland, the Norwegian mainland, Russia’s Kola Peninsula, the White Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and Prince William Sound in Alaska.

During the same period, however, the aggregated nautical miles that vessels traveled in the Polar Code area increased by a whopping 75%, to 10.7 million nautical miles.

Kim has now expanded on this information by analyzing ship type, vessel behavior, and traffic numbers from as recently as 2021, along with for CO2, oxides of nitrogen (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter (PM) up to 2019.

Increased numbers mean more pollution

Kim said that one of the issues to consider is that as ships get bigger or their number increases, so does pollution.

“We do expect to see numbers drop for sulfur dioxide in some Arctic areas as new regulations reduce the amount of sulfur allowed in ship fuel oil,” she said. “However, when it comes to ships using heavy fuel oil there are a number of loopholes that allow individual states to waive some regulations, so we don’t know how this will develop.”

Pollution from the large gas tankers isn’t expected to drastically drop in the Arctic, however, because they use heavy fuel oil, she said, which is not currently covered by the new regulations.

Additionally, the operational season for gas tankers is expanding. ASTD data shows that the gas tankers operate seasonally (mainly from July to November) along the Northern Sea Route, but the window during which they can travel has increased. In 2021, for example, gas tankers also traveled through the NSR in January, February, and December.

A map showing different routes across the top of the world. The Northern Sea Route, shown to the left, is already in use today. Credit: NOAA

Efficient transport?

The Northern Sea Route along the coast of Russia offers ships traveling from Europe to Asia a shortcut that can be as much as 40% shorter than conventional routes through the Suez Canal, for example. Transit times can also be cut by as much as 10–15 days.

Nevertheless, the NSR still poses some challenges. The ice can be unpredictable, and sometimes ships may need the assistance of an icebreaker or an ice pilot, which can increase costs and transit time. And if the ship runs on any type of fossil fuel, there will be additional CO2 and other emissions associated with the increased transit time.

And even though shipping companies are generally interested in cutting costs, the PAME data show that ships don’t travel in ways that always make sense, as Kim discovered when she looked at different shipping tracks.

“You would expect freight transportation to move from A to B via the shortest and (or) safest way. But a detailed study of this behavior shows that ships in the Arctic sometimes move in unusual ways, for no apparent reason,” she said.

Kim says these patterns suggest that operations could be optimized to minimize fuel consumption and thus emissions.

“Captains could be given incentives to motivate them operate in a ‘greener’ way, such as by avoiding unnecessary maneuvers,” she said.

Fishing vessels also contribute

With roughly 600 fishing vessels operating in the Polar Code area, it shouldn’t be a big surprise that these ships accounted for the biggest share of CO2 emissions before 2017, around the time that the number of LNG tankers really began to expand, Kim said.

This graphic shows emissions from all ship types from the fishing zone around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Cruise ships accounted for more than double the amount of sulphur dioxide releases up to 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic put a complete halt to cruises to the area. The graphic is based on data from the Arctic Council Working Group on the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment’s Arctic Ship Traffic Data (ASTD) System. Credit: Ekaterina Kim, NTNU

CO2 emissions from fishing vessels peaked in 2019, with emissions just over 470,000 metric tons, Kim’s analysis showed. But in that same year, releases from LNG tankers topped 790,000 metric tons—and this from just 24 tankers.

When Kim looked at emissions from just the Barents Sea Large Marine Ecosystem area, which is off the very northern coast of Norway and Russia, she found that fishing vessels and LNG tankers had similar CO2 emissions in 2019 (557,000 metric tons and 704,000 metric tons, respectively). The Barents Sea area was also the area that that had the highest emissions overall in the entire Polar Code area.

Svalbard is another area where fishing vessels are active. Kim found that while the number of fishing vessels is decreasing, the pollution levels around the archipelago have remained the same because the size of the is increasing, she said.

Kim also says that sizes around Svalbard are also increasing, since cruise ship numbers have gone down even though pollution numbers have stayed the same. There was a spike in SO2 emissions in 2019 from these ships, but the advent of the coronavirus meant that no cruise ships traveled to Svalbard in 2020 and only a few in 2021.

Worse in the Baltic Sea

While it’s important to reduce Arctic emission levels as much as possible, Kim points out that the overall emissions there are much lower than in more populated areas farther south.

“For example, ASTD data shows that in the Finland and Sweden EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), passenger vessels contribute between 600,000 to 700,000 metric tons CO2 every year from 2012–2019,” she said. “This is nearly as much as LNG carriers in the Arctic, but is concentrated in much smaller areas.”

Kim says, however, that it’s important to keep in mind that the Arctic remains relatively pristine compared to more populated areas farther south.

“Shipping in the Arctic brings with it light pollution, noise, marine litter, and more,” she said. “Only zero activity has zero pollution.”

“Ship traffic and pollution numbers keep rising, and the Arctic is melting fast,” she said. “So can regulations keep up with the changes?”



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The worst polluters in the Arctic are not what you think (2022, May 6)
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Biologists examine low-cost ways to improve urban streams

Hamilton County Conservation District staff and volunteers survey the Cooper Creek in a pilot project to demonstrate that adding timber in select places upstream can create habitat for fish and other aquatic life. Credit: Michael Booth

Biologists at the University of Cincinnati are studying low-cost ways to improve water quality and wildlife habitat in urban creeks.

Like those found in many , Cincinnati’s streams are routinely affected by flash floods, sewage overflows, pollution and stormwater runoff.

UC biologists Stephen Matter and Michael Booth are examining whether and wildlife habitat can be improved simply by adding a touch more of Mother Nature. With a team of volunteers, they placed fallen logs and branches in select parts of the upper Cooper Creek, a stream in the Cincinnati suburb of Blue Ash that drains downstream into the larger Mill Creek and Ohio River.

The addition of fallen timber could help slow periodic floodwaters, create more standing pools for during droughts and reduce nutrients that could make their way downstream, researchers said.

“Cooper Creek typifies a lot of issues streams in Hamilton County face,” said Booth, an assistant professor who studies fish and aquatic ecology across the country.

“We know wood plays an important role for creating . Cooper Creek is a boring place—lots of rocks but not much else,” he said. “In creeks you’d like to see a variety of habitats, fallen logs, standing pools and flowing .”







A time-lapse video shows volunteers placing timber in Cooper Creek to improve habitat for aquatic wildlife. Credit: Michael Booth

The UC researchers presented the project in April to the Geological Society of America’s sectional conference in Cincinnati. The project is supported by the Ohio Water Resources Center through a U.S. Geological Survey grant.

Greater Cincinnati has an extensive network of creeks feeding its major rivers.

“These streams really are the lifeblood of the natural system,” said Matter, an associate professor of biology in UC’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“Most of our creeks are these small headwater streams. If you walk through Cincinnati, you’re going to run into one of these in every neighborhood,” Matter said. “Often they’re places we’d like to see nature.”

But some Cincinnati creeks see raw sewage overflow during storms, which makes them a potential health risk, Matter said.

In Cincinnati, most creeks help divert standing water off roads, so they can turn from a trickle to a torrent after . Fish and other aquatic life can be swept far downstream.

UC biology students Jayla Brown, left, and Peter Grap place transponders into heavy logs to see whether they remain in place during periodic flooding in Cooper Creek. Credit: Michael Booth

“There are lots of impervious surfaces. When it rains, you see a massive increase in stream flow. This leads to major changes in sediment and habitat available for aquatic life,” Booth said.

As a result, while Ohio is home to 170 native freshwater fish, the upper section of Cooper Creek is home to just three species of fish today, Booth said.

“As we go downstream, we might add four or five more species,” he said. That’s a startling lack of biodiversity and a sign of an unhealthy ecosystem, he said.

“But we would definitely expect to see double the number of fish species if we had better habitat and better connectivity for fish to move back up into these sections,” Booth said. “We’re looking for a cost-effective solution to deploy to improve urban streams.”

Adam Lehmann, stream conservation program manager for the Hamilton County Conservation District, is overseeing the . He said the biggest challenge facing headwater streams in Ohio is they become bone dry between rainstorms.

Volunteers move heavy timber to Cooper Creek to create standing pools of water that will support aquatic life and improve the ecology of this urban stream. Credit: Michael Booth

“If a stream goes dry between rain events, the fish aren’t going to care how polluted the water is,” Lehmann said.

But by placing heavy logs in strategic places in the creek where flooding won’t easily be able to wash them downstream, Lehmann said he hopes to use the rush of water to his advantage to create intermittent pools of water where fish and other aquatic life can survive between storms.

“Everybody understands that when a stream goes dry, fish are out of luck,” he said. “If we jam one side of a log against a tree, we can force the flow of water under the log to scour out a depression that will hold water in dry times.”

Lehmann said the logs should help to catch other flood-swept debris as well. Historically, fallen timber was removed from creeks to prevent it from clogging drainage culverts. Paradoxically, Lehmann said they expect to see less woody debris blocking drainage culverts by adding more heavy wood to the creek.

Restoring the natural hydrology of creeks can be expensive and labor-intensive, often requiring intrusive heavy equipment. Researchers are hoping to see similar benefits from less drastic efforts than bringing in backhoes.

University of Cincinnati biology student Jayla Brown seals a transponder in a log to track how well timber remains in place during periodic flooding in Cooper Creek. Credit: Michael Booth

“I like to focus on scalable solutions,” Lehmann said. “You don’t have to mow down the forest to get in there. You don’t need to hire engineers or obtain Clean Water Act permits. And the wood is available free of charge.”

To gauge the project’s effectiveness, researchers plan to add little passive transponders to each log and return to see if the wood gets washed downstream or remains in place as they hope it will.

If the project is successful, it could demonstrate that relatively simple efforts can have profound benefits. Hamilton County is home to more than 1,000 headwater streams that feed its lakes and rivers, said Amanda Nurre, watershed specialist with the Great Parks of Hamilton County.

“We have a very impressive watershed in Hamilton County. There are small streams in every park. We’re very interested in finding low-cost ways to improve our streams. I think it could be a useful tool,” she said. “I’m optimistic to see if it can work.”



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Biologists examine low-cost ways to improve urban streams (2022, May 6)
retrieved 9 May 2022
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