Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

Special Feature: Wetlands, Watersheds, and Climate Change Adaptation: Collaborating with multiple interests to address flood/drought projections

By Peg Bostwick – ASWM Great Lakes Office

Here in the upper Midwest, we are spared from the urgent need to plan for sea level rise and hurricane protection.   Instead, some of the major projected climate changes facing us are the linked but opposite impacts of flood and drought. Linked— because both are driven by changes in patterns of precipitation—in much of the central area of the country, current projections are for more intense storms, but interspersed with longer dry periods. Opposite— in the automatic response—“get rid of excess water” versus “store and conserve as much water as possible.”   The dominant concern may change not only seasonally but over the longer term, with the predictable unpredictability of climate change issues.  Detailed projections for the Midwest (and other regions) are provided in the draft national Climate Assessment, to be released in 2013 by the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee.  This report is currently available for review and comment (click here).

Most wetland managers facing these climate projections will be quick to make the mental jump to the multiple roles of wetlands as landscape buffers—storing floodwater on the land, providing groundwater and stream recharge, supplying water during drought periods.  However, we need to be aware that many other stakeholder groups will not automatically make this connection.  A high percentage of pre-settlement wetlands in the U.S. heartland have been lost to drainage to support agriculture, as well as other human development. The ingrained response to flooding is likely to be expansion of existing drainage networks. This response is clearly not in the best interest of the agricultural sector —which may need to rely increasingly on irrigation from surface and groundwater during drought cycles.  Expediting drainage would not only reduce dry weather flows, but also have negative consequences for water quality due to increased pollutant loading in run-off, as well as sedimentation.  In short, our states and communities need to respond to changing hydrologic patterns in the broadest possible light, and wetland managers have an opportunity to provide a positive way forward.

This short post is quite simply a call to reach out to others—agricultural interest groups, municipalities, stormwater managers, groundwater managers, as well as fish and wildlife managers and conservation groups—to share the potential for addressing an increasing amount of flood/drought concerns in part through wetland management. The basic framework for working with these multiple sectors already exists—though watershed planning, management and restoration.   Numerous projects have been implemented exemplifying how wetland protection and restoration may be effectively incorporated into watershed planning to protect both water quality and aquatic habitat.  Now— add climate change adaptation.

The newly released National Water Program 2012 Strategy: Response to Climate Change makes reference to this approach among a myriad of goals and actions.   Specifically, you may look to Section IV.B. on “Watersheds and Wetlands” —to see how the Environmental Protection Agency integrates these programs.   Wetland managers are already refocusing on a watershed approach in regulatory requirements, and they are mapping geographic information in a way that facilitates watershed management.   We will need the help of climate scientists and hydrologists to help define potential future water storage needs, and to define the speed of change.  We need to avoid such errors as attempting to create or restore wetlands where there is not enough water to support wetland ecosystems currently, but we may wish to set aside buffer areas for potential future wetland expansion as needed.  Engaging many stakeholders will help us to identify opportunities and avoid working at cross purposes.

Introducing other stakeholders to the “no regrets” protection and restoration of wetlands on a watershed scale to provide storage and conveyance for floodwaters, storage of water on the landscape, as well as linking of habitat corridors, can provide a positive and cost-effective adaptation to Midwestern flood/drought projections.   Please add climate change adaptation to your list of wetland and watershed considerations.

Related links for further reading:

EPA’s National Water Program 2012 Strategy:  Response to Climate Change

ASWM’s Climate Change Adaptation & Wetlands webpage

Draft Third Climate Assessment report from the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee (Scroll down to click on individual chapters of the large report, or choose to open the full report.)

When It Rains, It…

Precipitation patterns affect many aspects of life, from agriculture to urban storm drains. These maps show projected changes based on Global Climate Model output for the middle of the current century (2041-2070) relative to the end of the last century (1971-2000) across the Midwest. Top left: the changes in total annual average precipitation. Across the entire Midwest, the total amount of water from rainfall and snowfall is projected to increase. Top right: increase in the number of days with very heavy precipitation (top 2% of all rainfalls). Bottom left: shows increases in the amount of rain falling in the wettest 5-day period. Both indicate that heavy precipitation events will increase in intensity in the future across the Midwest. Bottom right: change in the average number of days with less than one-tenth of an inch of precipitation. An increase in this variable has been used to indicate an increase in the chance of drought in the future. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC. Data from CMIP3 Daily Multi-model 1 Mean.) Image source: NCADAC Draft Climate Assessment Report

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