April Showers No Longer Bring the Usual

This guest post is by Fay Augustyn, conservation associate at American Rivers, as part of a blog series for Getting Climate Smart, a joint effort by NRDC and American Rivers to guide state action on climate and water preparedness. 

Please join us for a one-hour webinar on May 14 at 3pm EDT, where we’ll provide highlights from our new guide and state officials from California and Massachusetts will share about their climate preparedness planning and implementation experiences.     

Who doesn’t remember the little saying from our childhood, “April showers bring May flowers?” I sure do, but I’m not so sure that the next generation will. My spring memories are full of raincoats and galoshes followed by walking barefoot through flowerbeds full of blooming peonies, irises and roses. This spring however, had a less traditional weather path, with April and May chalk full of blizzards, floods, wildfires, and drought. Just last week, children in the upper Midwest and central Plains spent the first days of May playing in more than a foot of snow. While snow in the north in May isn’t unheard of, a storm of this magnitude is rarely seen.

As much as climate change impacts like increased extreme weather events create problems for us, it is equally problematic for our favorite fuzzy, feathered, and scaled critters. Extreme rain and drought events are only expected to continue in frequency and intensity, increasing pressure on fish, wildlife, and plant species already under threat from habitat loss.

Our new report, Getting Climate Smart, outlines a variety of strategies that will help resource managers develop strategies to protect critical habitat for wildlife against the onslaught of climate change. Conserving and restoring floodplains gives rivers room to safely store water in flood events as well as providing critical habitat for fish, wildlife and plants. Removing barriers to fish passage like old culverts improve fish habitat and make infrastructure safer for the public during extreme events.

Floodplain development, dams, polluted runoff and habitat destruction in riparian areas are combining with climate change to create streams and rivers that are too dirty and too warm to sustain healthy populations of many species. Iconic cold-water fish such as salmon, steelhead and trout often are among the most threatened. In order to protect fish and other wildlife against the effects of climate change it is essential that we restore and protect existing habitat.

In Vermont, the Bronson Brook Dingle Road culvert failed during a high intensity storm, washing out the road and causing damage to both the human and natural worlds. Rebuilt in 2006, the new culvert is a 40-foot open bottom culvert that is large enough to withstand damage even in the most extreme weather scenarios. In 2011, when Hurricane Irene swept through the Northeast, the Bronson Brook culvert did not fail due to its large size and the ability to withstand extreme water pressure. Installing culverts that are more resilient in the face of extreme weather is critical for fish, wildlife and public safety.

The projected increased occurrence of droughts and wildfires related to climate change  are also a serious risk to both terrestrial and aquatic systems. Ash from wildfires is washed into streams and clogs the gills of fish. Burned hillsides often have landslides the following winter and the deposition of silt on the bed of the river buries fish habitat and kills aquatic invertebrates.  

Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken today to reduce the impacts of drought and wildfires on fish and wildlife. Last year, in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, resource managers monitored critical fish and wildlife habitat for wildfire risks while enlisting fish rescue teams to save the local populations of threatened Gila Trout. When the Whitewater Baldy wildfire struck the Gila watershed in the summer of 2012, the rescue teams were prepped and prepared to locate populations of trout and evacuate and transport the fish to a safe stream. Overall, they saved over one thousand Gila trout, a federally threatened species.

While preparedness planning often focuses on protecting our urban communities, it is vital to remember the importance of safeguarding our fish, wildlife and plants. Not only does the natural world provide us with cultural and recreational benefits, but it also provides a variety of services that we often take for granted such as public safety, clean water, and reduced damages from flooding and sea level rise. We must begin to prepare both human and natural communities for a changing climate.

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