Categorized | Climate Change

More Action Needed in the National Freshwater Action Plan

One of the biggest impacts of climate change is on water – Higher temperatures will increase the amount of water in the atmosphere, changing precipitation patterns and increasing the variability within patterns, leading to declines in snowpack and a higher frequency of heavy precipitation events, heat waves and other extremes.  The transformations driven by climate change will redistribute stream flow and wetlands. So it was good news when, last October, the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force recommended  a coordinated response to addressing the impacts of climate change on freshwater resources in the U.S.  The Task Force recently took a step forward by releasing its draft National Action Plan: Priorities for Managing Freshwater Resources in a Changing Climate

The action plan proposes six recommendations federal agencies can take to support water resource managers in understanding and reducing climate change risks.  The recommendations are elements familiar from other climate adaptation strategies, such as the need for improved information, for increased capacity, for integrated water resource management and for water use efficiency. 

The plan’s highlights are its issuance, the diversity of the workgroup and the commitment to periodic revisions of the plan.  The mere existence of a climate adaptation strategy for water resources is something to applaud, and the collaboration of so many federal agencies in its development is itself progress in the otherwise fractured world of water resources management.

There are also, however, lowlights.  First and foremost, “action plan” is a misnomer because “it is important to note that the proposal of an action in this report and the association of an action with a ‘lead agency’ do not commit an agency to provide or seek funding for the action or to make related policy or program changes.”  Taken together with the admission that actions were deemed priorities in part because they are achievable within current and foreseeable agency capacity, the plan looks more like a repackaging of things the agencies are already doing.  This is worrisome for an action plan, because this same workgroup found that existing efforts to reduce climate risks to freshwater resources are not sufficient.

And, from Defenders’ point of view, the plan punts on protecting water quality and aquatic ecosystems in response to a changing climate, postponing achievement of that goal to development of the national fish, wildlife and plants climate adaptation strategy.  If we are truly to achieve protection of aquatic ecosystems in the face of climate change, the collaborative approach valued by the workgroup is indeed critical, and we can no longer segregate fish and wildlife management from water resources management.  The two go hand in hand.  Water resource managers are in dire need of direction and recommendations for how to protect aquatic ecosystems.  Since it is a goal of the freshwater action plan, there must be recommendations and actions to achieve that goal.

It is heartening that the Task Force recognized that the breadth and severity of climate change impacts to water resources warrants a coordinated plan for freshwater ecosystems.  Through no fault of its own, the plan also suffers for lack of a unifying national water policy that would provide a backdrop to the goal of assuring adequate water supplies, protecting human health and property and protecting water quality and aquatic ecosystems in the face of climate change.  Reducing the risks of climate change is a much different proposition than managing the full spectrum of freshwater issues, threats and needs.  Without guiding principles regarding what it means to have adequate water supplies – for what purposes?, what is “adequate”?, can we have adequate supplies for everything we want? – the plan’s goal will remain elusive.

The Council on Environmental Quality will be accepting public comments for 45 days.  As we at Defenders continue to review and comment on the action plan, we will be looking for opportunities for federal agencies to take bold, climate-smart actions to protect aquatic ecosystems and sustain the functions and services of these ecosystems.

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- who has written 2 posts on dotWild.

Kara Gillon is a senior staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. Kara works on a variety of state and national Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and other environmental regulatory and litigation activities.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.