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Insights How Don is promoting and protecting biodiversity

As part of our #PeopleDriveResults campaign, this week we have caught up with Don Deis, Vice President, Principal Technical in our environmental group based in Florida.

this is a image of Don

Tell us a little about yourself and what you do

I am Don Deis. I have a Master of Science degree in marine ecology and am a certified environmental professional in assessment. I am a vice president, principal technical professional and have been with AtkinsRéalis ’s Atkins business for 25 years. I was fortunate to have been able to build the marine/estuarine ecology program within the company, working as both a project manager and a technical person.

What are the most important elements or fundamental aspects of biodiversity and how do they impact your daily life both personally and at work?

As ecologists, we use diversity indices to characterize the species within an environment. A poor environment would have a few dominant species. A healthy environment would have many species distributed evenly across the landscape. Habitats can have a foundation species that forms the actual habitat, along with more varieties of species within that habitat, like seagrass beds, herbaceous wetlands and some coral reefs.

My university research was on pollution-tolerant marine species in a polluted environment. This has allowed me to study and understand both ends of the biodiversity spectrum. I now view the environment on where it exists on the spectrum between healthy and polluted.

Of course, many of our cities are not diverse environments. Personally, I gravitate towards diverse environments for living and recreation. I want to walk out my door and see many different things.

What inspired you to advocate for biodiversity on a professional level?

I started my career as a scientist and regulator (environmental permit processor) for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. This introduced me to the environmental impacts of development. It taught me the importance of the National Environmental Policy Act, stepping back and evaluating the overall impact of projects. This drove my interests, not so much taking the position of advocating for biodiversity, but rather educating others on the importance of biodiversity,  understanding environmental impacts, and how to mitigate them to maintain biodiversity.

The ultimate example of this was my work in the National Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) for the environment impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, particularly the grounding of the Containership Houston on the reefs at American shoals in the Florida Keys. The ship left a trench in the reef from the propeller, damaging the reefs. After assessing the damage, we identified a two-phase solution: (1) a primary restoration, attempting to repair the damage where possible and stabilize the reef system;  and (2) a compensatory restoration, alternatives to make up for the reef losses that couldn’t be repaired and the amount of time for the restored damages to regain use. Through a cooperative agreement with the shipping company, primary restoration took about one year. In addition, the company paid for all the light structures along the Florida Keys reefs to have an active navigation signal that made ships aware of the location of the reefs. Prior to the grounding incident, the structures were passive, so the ship’s crew had to first see the light and then locate the structure with radar. Installation of that system has prevented subsequent groundings.

This taught me that often simple solutions can positively impact biodiversity and it’s our job to help find those solutions.

Why should the average person care about biodiversity, why is it important for all of us?

Given the choice, I would think that everyone would choose a diverse, healthy environment over a polluted one. That is what maintaining biodiversity is all about. My wife and I just moved south to Melbourne, Florida, partly to be near the Indian River Lagoon (IRL). I have been working on and studying the seagrass system in the IRL throughout my career. In 2009, the system began to experience a die-off of seagrasses. Since then, restoration efforts have occurred, but the system needs to recover the water quality before seagrasses can fully return. I find that most of the citizens in this area understand the importance of recovering water quality and seagrasses because they see how fish and fisheries are affected. They voted on a tax just for the restoration of the IRL system and it’s paying for water quality improvement projects. Many nongovernmental organizations in the area help citizens and communities do shoreline, oyster, clam and seagrass restoration projects as well. I plan to be a part of that restoration as a scientist advocate and participant.

Are there any other projects that stand out for you where AtkinsRéalis has really made a difference towards promoting and protecting biodiversity?

I could point to many examples. I think that it’s our job as scientists to find ways to inform and educate our clients and engineers on impacts to biodiversity and work with them to find project alternatives that best mitigate those impacts.

Just for fun… Do you have a favourite type of ecosystem and why?

I hate to choose just one, but if I must, it would be seagrass ecosystems.