Tag Archive | "Water"

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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Using Payments for Watershed Services for Conservation

Ecosystem services markets reveal the value of benefits provided by natural systems and provide incentives for landowners to provide more of these beneficial services. Water has emerged as a strong rallying point for the development of ecosystem service payment initiatives. The State of Watershed Payments report released by Ecosystem Marketplace catalogued 288 watershed payment programs and markets across the world. These initiatives focus on getting the beneficiaries of ecosystem services to pay for the services they consume, and incentivizing producers of services to implement practices and strive for outcomes that improve the quality and quantity of water services.

Water markets have been driven by regulatory standards designating acceptable levels of water quality such as the Clean Water Act and financial or in-kind incentives to land managers to adopt practices linked improvements in water quality.  Voluntary programs have been taking hold in the U.S.  The classic example is the New York City and the Catskills watershed program in which the New York City paid upstream farmers in the watershed to acquire land and implement practices to reduce sediment rather than pay for construction of an expensive new water treatment plant. More recently the Cities of Santa Fe and Denver have implemented similar models protecting upstream water supply.

The Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Restoration Project funds costs of land management in the watershed. In an area that is mostly forested, fire was identified as the biggest threat to water quality. The cost to maintain restored forest for 20 years was estimated at $4.3 million, whereas the savings of avoiding a future fire amount to $22 million – you do the math, the forest enhancement clearly saves money for the taxpayers of Santa Fe.

In Denver, Colorado the model was scaled up to include five watersheds encompassing two forests in 2010. Denver Water, the utility company, and the Forest Service entered into a 5-year $ 33 million partnership to implement projects to reduce the risk of wildfire, restoring wild areas and, minimize erosion and sedimentation of reservoirs.

Challenges still remain the biggest among these is the issue of measurable outcomes. While the amount of improvement in water quality from specific practices is not clear, these programs have been able to get around this by basing the value of improved water quality on the land management costs (which were clearly defined). For example, in Santa Fe the program was preceded by an environmental impact assessment in the watershed.

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A wetland in South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, near Charleston, Oregon.

Can coastal wetlands adapt to climate change?

A wetland in South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, near Charleston, Oregon.

A wetland in South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, near Charleston, Oregon. Photo by Bruce Taylor.

Based on evidence of past changes , we know that coastal wetlands can be surprisingly adaptable to changes in sea level. Rising sea levels can actually cause higher rates of sediment deposition in many types of estuaries, so that the floor of the wetland increases in elevation along with the rising sea. This process helps explain the persistence of these unique and highly productive ecosystems through times of much higher and much lower sea levels than today. But despite this inherent adaptability, a number of important coastal marshes, including those in Chesapeake Bay and parts of the Mississippi River Delta, are currently experiencing submersion and erosion and are expected to be heavily impacted by future sea-level rise .

A recent article in the journal Geophysical Research Letters  looks more closely at these feedbacks and what they mean for coastal wetlands in the future. The authors found that the response of coastal marshes to sea-level rise depended both on the rate of rise and the amount of sediment found in the marsh water. Their model showed that marshes with very little suspended sediment could not keep up with even a very slow rise in sea-level, while those with more sediment could adapt to a rise of several centimeters per year. (Tidal range, the difference between high and low tide, also affected the response.) At the higher rates of sea-level rise projected by more recent studies, however, only marshes with very high sediment concentrations and very large tidal ranges could be expected to survive beyond the end of the 21st century. Others would fail to keep up and would eventually be inundated with water.

This article is an interesting example of the importance of feedbacks and ecosystem responses in modeling climate change impacts. More than that, though, it offers at least two compelling lessons for those of us interested in managing ecosystems for climate change adaptation.

First, we can see that a lot of the impacts we’ve had on natural systems over the past few centuries will greatly limit their ability to adapt to climate change. While some coastal marshes are naturally low in sediment, others have been so affected by flood control and other changes that they are submerging even under current sea levels. In some cases, we can restore some of the adaptive capacity of these systems by reversing past damage. 

But the case of the coastal marshes also highlights the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions as quickly and as dramatically as possible. Many ecosystems can adapt to climate change up to a certain point, and we may be able to give them an additional boost by improving management practices. However, for many ecological systems abrupt changes may occur once thresholds or tipping point are reached–beyond which the system can no longer absorb change and shifts to a new state.  In the case of coastal wetlands such a threshold would occur when the rate of sea level rise outpaces the ability of the system to generate new marsh.  Once these wetlands are finally submerged and converted to open water it is very unlikely that they will be able to return to their former state. Unless we greatly limit the rate and magnitude of climate change, there will be very little we can do to help ecosystems adapt to the rapid, extreme changes in climate to which we are now committing ourselves. 

Kirwan, M.L. et al. Limits on the adaptability of coastal marshes to rising sea level. Geophysical Research Letters 37, L23401 (2010).

Posted in Climate Change, Pacific NorthwestComments (0)

National Security is Natural Security

The New York Times ran a story over the weekend called, “Why We Might Fight” about the role of the environment and natural resources in driving future conflicts.   In a series of five examples, Thom Shanker talks about how desertification, pollution, overuse of water and climate change may drive future international conflicts.  The subject has spawned new academic research programs and new non-government organizations dedicated to the development of ‘natural security’ policy.

Shanker doesn’t talk about how the same struggle for resources or against resource pollution bedevils neighbors here at home.  In Pennsylvania, residents in small towns across the state are fighting water pollution from ‘fracking’ for natural gas occurring on nearby properties.  In Nebraska, a Public Power and Irrigation District sued upstream farm water users because they were draining a downstream reservoir important in making the state’s electricity – and feeding precious water to other farms.

Posted in Fossil Fuels, UncategorizedComments (0)

Lake Mead at Record Low

Lake Mead at Record Low

Lake Mead. Photo: NASA

Media outlets across the West are reporting on the record low elevations at Lake Mead on the Colorado River.  This being the 75th anniversary of Hoover Dam, now is a good time to look at the past, present and future of not just the dam, but the entire Colorado River.

On October 17th, Lake Mead dropped to 1,083.18 feet above sea level; today, Lake Mead is at 1,082.25 feet elevation – the reservoir hasn’t been this low since it was first filling in the 1930s.  And it continues to drop.  We are not only witnessing the lowest that Lake Mead has been since 1937 but also the lowest 11-year average of inflows in the last 100 years.

The Colorado River basin is deep in drought.  Increased consumption, an unhealthy watershed and climate change all play a part in this precipitous drop.  When the river was divvied up in 1922, they thought it had an annual flow of about 16.4 million acre-feet, while the past 100 years have shown us it’s more like 15.1 million acre-feet.  Analysis of tree rings indicate that annual flow – measured over millenia – may be anywhere from 13.4 to 14.7 million acre-feet.  To make matters worse, researchers are learning that climate change will make that number even smaller — 5% to 20% smaller by 2050.

These lows have dire consequences for wildlife.  The filling of Lake Mead in the 1930s, and again in the 1960s in anticipation of the completion of Glen Canyon Dam, turned the river into a trickle that rarely reaches the Gulf of California.  The Colorado River delta once covered nearly 2 million acres of riparian-wetland habitat, which supported over 400 species of plants and animals.  Since then, marine life like the vaquita and totoaba virtually disappeared and Delta wetlands shrunk to one-fifth their former size.  Fish that were once common are now endangered.

There is danger that another historic low in Lake Mead elevation will again devastate wildlife and rural communities, this time in the Great Basin.  Should Lake Mead hit 1,075 feet elevation, Las Vegas will put even more pressure on the scarce water resources, as it seeks to develop a $3 billion project that would export groundwater that sustains hundreds of seeps, springs and streams in the Great Basin to try to sustain instead its own growth.  We should learn a lesson from the impacts to fish, wildlife and native communities in the Delta: rather than take water that already supports national wildlife refuges, national parks, state wildlife areas and rural communities, let’s look to water conservation and more responsible solutions.

Posted in Climate Change, In the FieldComments (1)


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.

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