Is Your City Preparing for the Impacts of Climate Change on its Water Resources?

As conservation planners in Oregon like to say, there’s a slow-moving tsunami headed our way. 

In some cities, this could come in the form of rising seas that might take decades to flood our shores.   In other cities, it could come from rivers overflowing their banks because of more intense storms.  For still others, it may come not as a torrent of water at all – but as waves of more frequent and prolonged drought, as rains decrease and rivers dry up.  This year we’ve seen an onslaught of such disasters, and climate change is only expected to increase the frequency and intensity of them.

Scientific studies show nearly every community in the U.S. will be impacted by climate change during the 21st century.  As a new report from NRDC highlights, the first, most profound and far-reaching impacts of climate change are water-related.    

Cities like New Orleans and Norfolk, Virginia, face serious challenges from sea level rise.  Places like Chicago and St. Louis face more intense storms and floods.  Phoenix and communities across the southwest face water shortages.  And some cities, like Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco, could suffer a curse of both too much and too little water – floods from the rising seas accompanied by lower annual precipitation.   Even Homer, Alaska, with a population of 5,500 is not immune from the impacts of climate change. 

But there is good news. We know the slow-moving tsunami is coming, and many of the cities we studied are doing the preparedness planning necessary to find higher ground. They are taking important steps to identify water-related threats from climate change and have begun planning for action:  from simple things, like moving backup equipment at sewage treatment plants out of harm’s way (as we’ve seen in New York), to entirely rebuilding a city’s defenses (as we are seeing in New Orleans).

Chicago, New York and Seattle win praise for developing comprehensive climate action plans, but the hard work that remains of fully implementing these plans will be critical. 

St. Louis, meanwhile, doesn’t yet have a plan to address the water-related risks of climate change.  Nonetheless, the city is undertaking important steps that will help reduce future harm – like the recently proposed expenditure of $100 million to green the city, which will provide the multiple benefits of lowering the volume and velocity of runoff, recharging groundwater supplies with rainwater and reducing the number of sewage spills.

Despite these laudable initial efforts, many cities across the U.S. continue to build in floodplains and in low-lying coastal areas, destroying valuable wetlands that could otherwise serve as buffers for floods or as speed bumps for storm surges.  Many cities also continue to pave over their watersheds, allowing precious rainwater to move far too quickly off the land and to our rivers and coasts.  This not only increases flood risk, but it wastes water where it might be needed later.  As my colleague Noah Garrison likes to say, “It’s not wastewater until we waste it.”  How true that is, and this motto will become even more important in places where water is likely to become increasingly scarce.

No matter where they are located, communities nationwide need to prepare for climate change and the impacts it will have on local water resources – from area waterways to drinking water supplies.  For guidance, they can look to what other cities are doing, particularly those cited in our report.  Local government should address these climate challenges in terms of Emergency Preparedness – something cities have been doing for years.  And they should act now.  The longer they wait, the more difficult it will be.

The costs of doing nothing or being reactive are great.  Sandbags and half-measures aren’t effective strategies to confront the myriad climate threats our cities face.  Going about business as usual or counting on wishful thinking just won’t do the trick. The time for a duck-and-cover approach to the impacts of climate change has passed.  The time for a frontal assault has come.

 Yes, we all should be hoping for the best.  But we should prepare for the worst.

 Our cities can lead the way.

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