How a Simple Question About Freshwater Inflow to Estuaries Shaped a Career
Montagna, Paul A.
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Chance and good luck led to a career studying how freshwater inflow drives estuary processes. In 1986, someone asked me: How much fresh water has to flow to a bay for it to be healthy? The question shaped my career. There is probably no better place on Earth to compare effects caused by inflow differences than the Texas coast, because the major estuarine systems lie in a climatic gradient where runoff decreases 56—fold from the Louisiana border in the northeast to the Mexico border in the southwest. This estuary—comparison experiment was used to study inflow effects. The science evolved from the idea in the 1990’s that organisms responded directly to inflow rates to the domino theory in the 2000’s of indirect effects where inflow drives estuary conditions and that organisms respond to those habitat conditions. Today it is hypothesized that climate drives hydrology, which drives estuary dynamics; and thus, climatic factors can indirectly shape estuarine structure and function. Assuming change along the inflow gradient is analogous to effects of altering estuaries over time, we can now predict ecosystem change with changing climate or land—use change.