Back to Basics on Earth Day 2020—Healthy Watersheds and Climate Security
Fifty years ago, the world celebrated Earth Day for the first time. Over 20 million people hit the streets demanding action for environmental protection and a “new way forward for our planet.” A year earlier, in 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire due to a thick oil slick and smog. Though it was not the first time – nor the only river to do so – this event sparked unprecedented levels of public attention to water quality issues across the nation, ultimately coalescing around the authorization of the Clean Water Act in 1972. In the 50 years since, we have made a great deal of progress as a nation. But these days, it can be difficult to think back 50 days ago, let alone to what the next 50 years can bring.
We are living in uncertain times.
Over the past few weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the way we move through the world, interact with one another, and envision our future. This feeling of uncertainty is all-too-familiar to those who follow climate change and its consequences – farmers, sustainable energy advocates, climate scientists, members of communities impacted by repeated flooding, and so many others. And while uncertainty can breed anxiety, it can also help bring us back to basics. To address the threat of COVID-19, we return to the basics of practicing good hygiene, prioritizing the collective good through social distancing, and taking care of the most vulnerable among us.
What – then – are some of the basics for addressing today’s climate crisis?
This year’s Earth Day theme is climate action: the significant challenge, the vast opportunity, and the living systems that protect us and make Earth habitable. As we head into Earth Day Live 2020, we propose that “the basics” of our current climate crisis must include healthy watersheds. Because water, and specifically healthy watersheds, can help fight climate change.
This may seem counterintuitive. After all, climate impacts show up first and foremost in water.
When we think of climate change and water, our minds typically turn to the negative impacts of climate change on our waterways, our aquatic ecosystems, and our water infrastructure. From droughts, floods, and sea level rise to ocean acidification and more.
Indeed, the facts are sobering. “Water security in the United States is increasingly in jeopardy,” the 2018 National Climate Assessment reports. Precipitation patterns are changing, and weather events have become more frequent, intense, and unpredictable in both directions. Over the past 30 years, the United States has experienced 26 drought events that each caused more than $1 billion in damage. Since 1950, we have seen a 40 percent increase in heavy precipitation events, with the number of flood events increasing every decade.
But freshwater resources are also part of the solution!
A healthy river or watershed can catalyze both climate adaptation and mitigation. In fact, the 250,000 rivers that flow through our nation–and the thousands of water protectors fighting to save them–just might offer the hope we’ve been looking for.
Healthy watersheds are a key component of the One Water approach. And they fight climate change.
One Water is a paradigm shift that is transforming the way we view, value, and manage water—from local communities to states, regions, and the nation. The One Water approach envisions managing all water in an integrated, inclusive, and sustainable manner to secure a bright, prosperous future for our children, our communities, and our country. It is busting silos and innovating strategies, working across utilities, cities, industries, agriculture, communities, and, you guessed it…watersheds. One Water demands these six areas work together to transform our water systems, but climate change is also impacting each of them. The good news: healthy watersheds support climate efforts in all other six areas.
By building resilience into our natural water systems, we can address multiple climate threats. Restoring natural stream channels offers ecosystems a wide set of benefits. When rivers are allowed to flow their intended course, they support people and wildlife by carrying water supplies, replenishing groundwater, and providing important habitats that bolster biodiversity. At the US Water Alliance, we’ve even seen farmers and water managers come together to reduce nutrient runoff and build forested buffers to control water temperature in streams. These agriculture-municipal water partnerships improve water quality, protecting valuable ecosystems and water supplies. Meanwhile, reconnecting the river to its floodplain where possible provides important buffers that benefit people and nature. With room to expand, rivers can recharge groundwater supplies during heavy rains or spring runoff. Such nature-based solutions for flood protection provide a first line of defense for extreme events. Preventing soil erosion can prevent riverine floods, while green infrastructure that mimics natural waterways can reduce localized or nuisance flooding. Protecting coastal mangroves and wetlands significantly reduces hurricane impacts; some studies have found storm surge reduction of 26-76 percent!
Stream flows are another key component of a resilient water system – there needs to be enough water to meet the needs of both nature and communities. Particularly in the west, river flows are under intense pressure and commonly over-allocated among the many human users, leaving insufficient flows to meet the needs of nature. Facilitating water transactions between users in a water basin is an important strategy to enhance flows for particular uses, though these agreements are complex and may take years to put into place. In recent years, River Network has supported the Environmental Water Transactions Network, helping conservation practitioners across the Colorado River Basin better connect to each other and exchange best practices, while helping them build connections with water users – ranchers and farmers –to encourage the types of collaborations that will be essential to achieving a different water future.
Protection of our watersheds also has significant potential to mitigate climate change.
Forests in the United States are a tremendous carbon sink, currently offsetting 10-20 percent of carbon emissions each year. They also provide significant protection for our drinking water supplies. In fact, 53 percent of drinking water supplies across the nation originate on forest land. Forests are natural filters for water quality. Five major cities–Boston, New York City, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle–source their drinking water from reservoirs located in protected, forested watersheds, and are thus able to enjoy high quality drinking water without expensive filtration. New York City has spent about $1.7 billion protecting the Catskills upstream, saving $10 billion to build a filtration plant plus $100 million per year to operate it. Watershed protection in forested areas provides us with excellent drinking water while also absorbing carbon, effectively mitigating climate change.
At the heart of watershed protection, we need community-centered approaches to resilience.
We all live in a watershed, even those of us in urban environments, in proximity to life-giving waterways that can also pose threats to life. Understanding local threats related to water supply, drought, water quality, or flooding issues is a key first step to generating solutions that address them. However, while solutions ranging from conservation to restoration efforts, land protection, or green infrastructure projects benefit the environment, they are only viable if they are developed and implemented alongside community members. Through the US Water Alliance’s Water, Equity, and Climate Resilience: An Urban Flooding Bootcamp, we’re seeing cities around the nation take these steps. In Raleigh, community advocates are working with stormwater managers to install rain gardens and propose development regulations that protect vulnerable populations and waterways. In the greater Des Moines area, a significant regional collaboration is underway for a greenway investment in the 500-year floodplain that includes flood resilience projects for previously underserved neighborhoods. Solutions that are generated and informed by the community are those most likely to address myriad local concerns and to be designed to bring about multiple benefits.
Community resilience IS climate resilience.
Climate solutions rooted in local knowledge and the co-creation of policies through a One Water approach will ensure that all people and our planet thrive.
So today we celebrate Earth Day Live 2020. We celebrate watersheds and all the various water protectors out there –water utilities and river keepers, foresters and indigenous and tribal leaders, and so many others. Thank you for nourishing our ecosystems, supplying us with clean water and flood protection, and securing a safe climate future!
Water is Life
I love You Water
I Thank You Water
I Respect You Water
Lakota Water Song
Mni T’hey he la
Mni Wopeda E Chi chi ya
Mni O’haa la…he
Lakota Water Song by Arlene, Mary Louise, and Beatrice Menase Kwe Jackson