Climate change calls for a fresh approach to water woes

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Sept. 24, 2018

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An egret spreads its wings above waters of the Everglades. "Climate change is a game changer" when it comes to managing major water basins across the country, says Lance Gunderson, chair of Emory's Department of Environmental Sciences.

The Everglades National Park, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, is home to 16 different species of wading birds and rare and endangered species like the manatee, the American crocodile and the Florida panther. But the area is also home to humans. The park is a portion of a larger wetland ecosystem, more than half of which has been converted into agricultural production or urban developments. The ecosystem must provide both flood protection and supply water for the park, the agricultural interests and South Forida’s rapidly growing population of nearly eight million people.

Meanwhile, a federal-state initiative to address this challenge, known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, is “sort of stuck in the muddle,” says Lance Gunderson, chair of Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences. The plan was authorized in 2000 but it hasn’t made much progress.

Climate change throws another wrench in the works, affecting the Everglades and other large watersheds across the United States in new and unpredictable ways. Extreme weather events and rising sea levels, combined with a growing population, will lead to “more intense arguments” about already contested issues of water quality and water usage, Gunderson says.

Gunderson, a wetlands ecologist, recently partnered with Barbara Cosens, a legal scholar at the University of Idaho, to lead an interdisciplinary team of researchers in a project to assess the adaptive capacity of six major U.S. water basins to changing climates. In addition to the Everglades, the basins include the Anacostia, the Columbia, the Klamath, the Platte and the Rio Grande rivers. The project was funded by NSF Social-Ecological Synthesis Center at the University of Maryland. Watch a video about the project here.

“Climate change is a game changer when it comes to the management of these regional-scale water systems across the country,” Gunderson says. “These systems are managed through assumptions about climate and models that are based on averages. Now, managers are struggling to adapt to more extremes — like earlier snow melts, more floods and droughts, and more intense storms.”

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