How two generations were at the inception of natural creeks

Ralf (42) and Piet (67) Verdonschot’s favourite position is with their boots in the water, looking for critters that reveal the state of nature. And they have been doing so for many years, as their joint research trajectory covers 50 of the 105 years of WUR’s history.

‘Saying that creeks should meander was simply not done’, says freshwater ecologist Piet Verdonschot, referring to a lecture he delivered in the seventies. ‘A water manager in the audience was furious and called my employer the very next morning.’ The concept of meandering streams that follow their natural path had not yet landed. Streams and ditches were straight and deep so as to remove water as quickly as possible.

Times change. Ralf Verdonschot, Piet’s son and also a freshwater ecologist, now slogs through creeks with water managers to show them how ditches can be transformed into a place where nature can do as it pleases. And with success: a growing number of streams in the Netherlands are anything but straight and even have trees in the water to increase the structure and variation of the stream. All those years of going against the flow have helped. How do the father and son feel about their domain in the Netherlands and about WUR now?

Together, the studies and careers of Piet and Ralf Verdonschot span almost half of WUR’s history. They both work at Wageningen Environmental Research (WEnR). Piet embarked on his study in Biology at WUR in 1973. ‘It was the only place that offered systems ecology.’ After a brief stint with other employers, he takes a position with research institutes that are later brought under the umbrella of Wageningen University & Research. ‘I was the very first person to work in the building now known as Lumen.’ Piet became a professor in Amsterdam, where he retired last year.

Select samples

One of his sons is soon smitten by the aquatic creatures. ‘Just like all children, mine loved to build dams in a stream. I would then point out the creatures sitting on the stones. It came naturally’, says Piet. ‘I was about four or five when I accompanied him on a field trip for the first time’, says Ralf. ‘We would catch aquatic insects and other invertebrates. At some point, I started to wonder: why are these critters there? That is when the inner biologist emerged.’

Ralf enrolled at Wageningen University in 2000. Not in the city centre like his father, where WUR was historically located. Ralf studied “on the hill,” where the former campus was located on De Dreijen. Despite his fascination with aquatic animals, he opts for a different tract than his father. Terrestrial ecology is his specialisation, and he takes a position in Nijmegen. Still, aquatic ecology interests him more than that of the land. He wants to return to WUR. ‘Why don’t you apply?’ says Piet, who heads the freshwater ecology team at WEnR by then.

Strange looks

Father and son in the same team is something the rest of the world eyes suspiciously. Ralf was hired by his father, who held assessment interviews with him and worked with him on joint projects. Favouritism? ‘No, quite the opposite’, says Piet. ‘Colleagues tended to consider me too strict.’ The strange looks persisted for years, but they shrug. ‘We never discussed it. It’s irrelevant. We focus on getting the job done right.’

What the two discuss at length is their message of nature recovery. Piet started his studies shortly after the Club of Rome, a think tank made up of scientists and entrepreneurs, published the alarming report in 1972 entitled ‘The limits of growth’. It was a time of protests. ‘That is when I knew I wanted to contribute to nature in the Netherlands. It was called nature and environment; now, we call it biodiversity and sustainability. But the issues are the same and have not been solved in the past fifty years.’

Call for change

So, they are out there, spreading the word among the media, policymakers and water managers. Their strength lies in their optimism, despite having to petition for many years before changes are implemented. ‘I never give up hope’, says Piet. ‘Because if you do, you may as well quit.’ They do see a difference in how they promote nature recovery. Piet minces no words. His mouth curls into a naughty smile. Ralf’s broad grin displays an equal amount of enthusiasm, but ‘I communicate more strategically.’

However differently father and son may communicate, the scientific substantiation is what matters. Piet: ‘It’s all about the facts. You may have a certain number of farmers, industries and discharge from purification plants, but what the facts show about the effect thereof is what matters. We need undisputed data. That shows us where things are going well, which is often the case in recovering nature reserves. But it also shows us where the water quality is declining.’

Data and software

Fortunately, their efforts in the fight have grown considerably -and strengthened their narrative – as a result of new research methods. It started with Piet and readings in a single stream five decades ago. Now, entire landscapes are monitored automatically and continuously. The equipment for fieldwork is not even the most significant change. Developments in software, such as GIS applications which enable you to gather, file, analyse and view vast amounts of data, are the major game changers. ‘We are now able to draw conclusions on a much larger scale’, Ralf explains. His dissertation laid the groundwork.

Their new “ammo” bolsters their message for water managers, who often take years to change their position due to concerns over lack of space and safety issues. Piet: ‘The straight streams remained as they were for many years. However, the last decade has shown change. That provides us with the energy to endure.’

By the time nature recovery measures are implemented, Piet and Ralf are already working on new innovations. ‘It appears that streams don’t regain their original function all that easily. Additional measures are required’, says Ralf. He is now investigating whether raising the stream’s floor may help, thus making it shallower. That way, the water streams continuously and may also flood, creating a more varied floor and wet nature on the banks. Moreover, it helps to retain water in periods of drought.

Market dynamics

WUR always allows the two room for their research plans so that they don’t have to go against the flow. Piet: ‘As long as you publish and acquire research funds.’ Although funding has never really been an issue, it has become more difficult than before, he states. WEnR’s predecessors were 100 per cent funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, but that is no longer the case. Market dynamics in research ‘are difficult, because no economic value is given to water and nature quality.’

Now that he is retired, Piet no longer needs to apply for funding, and the pressure to publish has also been lifted. ‘A huge advantage’, he states. Now, he can focus solely on science. ‘I have the time to expand my perspective and include evidence from other domains to strengthen my argument.’

Mission not yet accomplished

It would appear that Piet is not really retired after all. He laughs. He and Ralf don’t see it that way. The mission to recover the water system in nature is nowhere near accomplished. ‘That is the activist in us’, Ralf says.

They try to pass on their passion to the next generation. Although they do not have a teaching role, they join field trips and supervise students in their research. But they feel education in systems ecology could do with an upgrade. While Piet could opt for this expertise as a specialisation tract fifty years ago, that is no longer possible. Hence, they continue to transfer their passion for systems ecology to today’s students.

Water on campus

When prompted, the ecologists voice their opinion on the green campus. They express the hope that there won’t be much additional construction in order to keep the campus green. And, no surprise, they share some advice: ‘Recover the campus’ hydrology. This spot is part of the connecting zone between the Veluwe and the Utrechtse Heuvelrug. If we want plants and animals to proliferate along the route, water is the first place to make improvements.’

This article was published as part of ‘105 years of WUR’, with theme Shaping Sustainable Futures. For 105 years, Wageningen University & Research has focused on shaping a sustainable future, with research and education on climate, biodiversity, nutrition, circularity and healthy living.