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Sustainable Waters Lab, Department of Natural Resources

Watersheds and Climate Change

Turning disaster into opportunity:
The extremes of climate change are already having serious impacts on freshwater. A critical impact is the increasing frequency and magnitude of both floods and droughts, and frequently in the same locations. However if we manage our watersheds better, we can reduce both the risk from these impacts and our vulnerability to them. Here are several  powerful strategies:
  1. Phased retreat from high risk floodplains: Rivers are naturally dynamic, with the stream channel gradually migrating back and forth across the floodplain in response to the high energy of storm events. Plants, fish and other organisms are adapted to this  disturbance regime and can easily recover. However humans try to stabilize these dynamic systems using levees and bulkheads to stabilize the shorelines and prevent inundation of the floodplains, draining wetlands, and racing stormwaters out of the watershed by channelizing and deepening the rivers. When a big enough storm occurs, rising waters in the floodplain put people and infrastructure at risk. Moving people, as well as wastewater treatment plants, roads, and other public infrastructure out of floodplains permanently reduces the risk and costs of flooding. It also allows for a natural, healthy floodplain which provides many ecosystem services, e.g. nurseries for fish, flood retention, and improved water quality.
  2. Save the rain for a droughty day.  The increase in extremes of climate change means that many places go from extended droughts to extreme, high intensity rain events, and back to droughts. With thoughtful planning, we could save the fresh, drinkable water of rainfall for use during the dry periods. Re-plumbing our watersheds means capturing the rain and allowing it to infiltrate underground to recharge the groundwater. These aquifers are then available to sustain the streams and keep our wells full during dry periods. Comprehensive management of watersheds to increase water capture and groundwater recharge includes:
    (a) restoring vegetation to intercept and slow down rainfall and also to shade and cool soils which reduces evaporation,
    (b) increasing soil organic matter content to capture rainfall and also increase soil porosity that promotes infiltration, and
    (c) re-plumbing artificial drainage networks of roadside ditches, agricultural tile drains, and reducing the extent of impervious surfaces of parking lots and roads so that stormwater runoff is directed to locations where it can recharge groundwater instead of racing out of the watershed.
What we’re doing:
Dr. Schneider was co-leader / co-author on the Water Resources section of the NYS ClimAid project which identified vulnerabilities of water resources across New York state to climate  change (https://www.nyserda.ny.gov/climaid). She was co-author of Diet for a Small Lake and its Watershed, a collaborative guide produced by NYS Dept. Environmental Conservation and the NYS Federation of Lake Associations  (http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/water_pdf/dietlake09.pdf) and she has written multiple book chapters on sustainable watershed management for watersheds around the world.
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Watershed Management as Adaptation to Climate Change:
  • Schneider, R.L., M.S. Mayer and T.C. Hall. 2016. Watershed, Climate, and Lake Level Manipulations. pp 53-70. IN:  L.G.Rudstam, E.L.Mills, J.R.Jackson and D.J. Stewart. Oneida Lake: Long-term Dynamics of a Managed Ecosystem and its Fishery. American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, Maryland.  ISBN 978-1-934874-43-1.
  • Shaw, S. , R.L.Schneider, A. McDonald, S.Riha, L.Tryhorn, R. leichenko, P.Vancura, A.Frei, and B. Montz. 2011. pp. 79-120. Ch.4. Water Resources. IN: Editors: C.Rosenzweig, W.Solecki, A.DeGaetano, M.O’Grady, S. Hassol, and P. Grahborn. Responding to climate change in New York State: the ClimAid integrated assessment for effective climate change adaptation in New York State. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
  • Kishbaugh, S., S. Anderson, R.L.Schneider, L. Raymond, J. Foster, and J. Cunningham. New York State Federation of Lake Associations. 2009. Diet of a Small Lake: the Expanded Guide to New York State Lake and Watershed Management. NYSFOLA in cooperation with NYSDEC. ISBN 978-0-9823547-0-4. 318 pp.
  • Schneider, R.L. 2007.  Ch. 3: Rationale and framework for integrated, watershed-based management of the Nile River Basin. pp.51-70 IN: Editors: M. Kitissou, M.Ndulo, M. Nagel, and M. Grieco. The Hydropolitics of Africa: A Contemporary Challenge. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Researching Climate Change Impacts and Adaptations:
  • Hetherington, A., R.L. Schneider, L.G.Rudstam, G.Gal, A.T. DeGaetano, and M.T.Walter. 2015. Modeling climate change impacts on the thermal dynaimcs of polymictic Oneida Lake, New York, United State. Ecological Modelling 300: 1-11.  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304380014006310

 

                                        under construction – last update 13 Oct 2016

 

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