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On Flood and Thirst: How Communities Are Adapting to the Age of Unpredictable Water

Picture of Allie Goldstein and Kirsten Howard under an irrigation system

Allie Goldstein (left) and Kirsten Howard get irrigated in Camilla, Georgia.

Text and photos by Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein

In Keene, New Hampshire, Duncan Watson looks out the window with trepidation as rain pounds the glass of his office at the Public Works Department; in 2005, a flood in his hometown killed seven people. And across the country in Santa Fe, New Mexico, forest fuels specialist Bill Armstrong fears he’s losing a race against the clock to thin and prescriptively burn the tree-crowded national forest before a prolonged drought sets the stage for another mega-fire.

What do these two men have in common? They’re on opposite sides of the same coin, dealing with the consequences of what Watson calls a “caffeinated climate” in which change is not so much about the slowly rising thermostat, but about more pronounced extremes, from very wet to very dry.

This past summer, we took a three-month road trip in Allie’s mom’s minivan to find stories about communities building their resilience to the impacts of climate change. We called our adventure the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. Now, looking back on 17,359 miles, 31 states, and 158 interviews, it’s clear to us that water is a key player in almost every adaptation story.

Two sides of the same coin

Current climate change science suggests that as carbon dioxide levels rise, communities across the U.S. are going to see too much precipitation too quickly, putting a major strain on municipal stormwater infrastructure, agriculture, and human safety. Many places have already seen an uncharacteristic number of intense rain events in the past decade. This September’s devastating flooding in Boulder, Colorado is just a harbinger.

Other places aren’t getting enough water. With temperatures projected to rise at least another 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century under most carbon emissions scenarios, arid climates are expecting the precious little rain and soil moisture they get to become even scarcer. Increased evaporation and sparse rainfall amplified this summer’s record-breaking heat wave in Arizona, and throughout the Midwest and South, changing precipitation patterns place pressure on already overdrawn groundwater.

Flood and thirst are the stuff of nightmares. But the goal of our trip was to get beyond the fear that these projections instill—beyond the helplessness of looking out the window at the pelting flood rains or over the hills scarred by scorched forest. Though our travels took us to many of these frightening scenes, our blog focuses instead on the many people who are working to make their communities more resilient to the two major challenges that climate change poses for water: too much, too fast and too little, too late.

Picture of wetlands at Mary Beth Doyle Park

Ann Arbor’s stormwater utility helps to fund projects such as these wetlands at Mary Beth Doyle Park, which can hold up to 15 million gallons of stormwater.

Adapting to too much, too fast

We met people implementing creative adaptations to extreme rain events almost everywhere, from East to West, in urban and rural communities.

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, where mean annual rainfall in the city was 25% greater between 1981 and 2010 than it was in the previous 30-year period, planners are cognizant of the need to take pressure off the city’s aging, low-capacity stormwater pipes. A new funding structure for its stormwater utility allows the City of Ann Arbor to adjust residents’ stormwater bills based on the square footage of impermeable surface—areas that don’t absorb rainwater—they have on their property. Implemented in 2006, the newly-structured utility now raises the City $5 million per year. That money is reinvested in stormwater infrastructure, including natural infrastructure like wetland parks that absorb excess floodwater. The utility also incentivizes residents to reduce their stormwater footprint by providing credits for rain barrels and rain gardens.

“Tackling stormwater issues is something that makes sense under the current climate and makes sense to alleviate impacts of larger storm events predicted for our area,” said Rebecca Esselman, a watershed planner at the Huron River Watershed Council in Ann Arbor.

In some places we visited, the reaction to more intense rain events isn’t so proactive, and it is major loss that prompts action. In late August 2011, Vermont farmers were devastated by Tropical Storm Irene’s torrential rains. A few farmers were foresighted enough to harvest some of their unripe fruits and veggies before the storm hit, but more lost a lot of their product. Concerned about contaminated floodwater spreading dangerous pathogens like e.coli, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned consumption of crops that had come into contact with floodwater. Irene was a wake-up call.

“A concern about ‘adulterated’ [contaminated] harvest has prompted farmers to think about what they plant and how they plant it,” said Diane Bothfeld, a Deputy Secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets.

As storms like Irene become more common in Vermont, farmers are having to weigh the benefits of farming in the fertile floodplains against the risk of major losses—and some are already seeing the writing on the wall. When a river jumped its banks to carve a new path through their fields at Evening Song Farm in Cuttingsville, Vermont, farmers Ryan Beauchamp and Kara Fitzgerald lost everything. After months of hardship, the young couple—with the financial and emotional support of their small community—began the search for a new farm. In the ultimate example of resilience, they have transitioned from riverside to hillside farmers, where future floods won’t reach them. And only two years later, their Community Supported Agriculture program is in full swing.

Picture of a forest in Colorado

Denver Water partnered with the US Forest Service to pay for forest fire prevention in key watersheds.

Adjusting to too little, too late

Changing behavior to better deal with less water was an equally common story we encountered on the road. “It really all comes down to water,” Andrew Fahlund, Executive Director of Water in the West told us when we met to discuss water issues facing California. “I think figuring out how to supply adequate fresh water to people and ecosystems will be the biggest challenge that climate change poses for us.”

People are certainly coming head-to-head with that challenge in Denver, Colorado, where unprecedentedly destructive forest fires spurred Denver Water, the water utility for the city, to add fire management and public partnerships to its portfolio. Hotter and drier weather combined with a century of fire suppression by humans has left Colorado’s forests ripe for mega fires. The 1996 Buffalo Creek fire that burned 11,700 acres, the 2002 Hayman fire that tore through almost 140,000 acres, and more recent blazes all pose risks to Denver’s water quality. When the rains that follow the fire season finally arrive, they wash leftover charred debris and loose sediment into freshwater bodies, including drinking water reservoirs.

“The Buffalo Creek Fire was when we got in the watershed business,” said Don Kennedy, an environmental scientist at Denver Water. “It costs a lot to build reservoirs, so we wanted to protect them.”

After implementing preventive measures on their own land, including building berms and thinning the surrounding forest to reduce the chance that fires will spread, Denver Water turned to surrounding land owned by the U.S. Forest Service. In 2010, the two organizations formed an innovative partnership called From Forests to Faucets. Denver Water now pays the Forest Service to manage forests for fire in priority watersheds—a task too daunting for the federal agency to tackle with its shrinking budget. Denver Water increased rates to residents by $0.14 per month to finance its $16.5 million, five-year commitment to the Forest Service. The agency is matching the commitment with its own funds, and through contractors, is now on track to enhance forest management across 38,000 acres by 2015.

In concert with protecting water quality, some arid communities are improving water efficiency so their sources last long-term. In the southwestern agricultural town of Camilla, Georgia, where irrigated corn and peanuts are the backbone of the local economy, a team of researchers at the Stripling Irrigation Research Park is developing a technological water-saving device. Called variable rate irrigation (VRI), the technology allows farmers to use GPS coordinates to program different water application rates for different sections of their fields. Combined with soil moisture monitors, the VRI system can produce significant water savings by dropping less sprinkle on areas of the field that are already wet enough.

Casey Cox, a young Camilla farmer who uses VRI on her family’s fields explained to us that, “the main point with VRI is that there are several wetlands in fields—areas where water congregates. The only problem with that is, you’re irrigating a wetland. There are no crops there. So you’re losing money, you’re losing water, you’re losing electricity. So VRI was developed to be able to cut that off.”

VRI is fairly new, and of the 13,000 farmers in Georgia who irrigate using a center pivot system, only 75 have adopted VRI so far. But 21-year-old Cox, herself the future of her six-generation family business, sees precision technology like VRI as part of the future, especially as Georgia expects increasing stress on its rain-fed aquifer.

Picture of the Dillion Reservoir in Colorado

The From Forests to Faucets partnerships protect the Dillon Reservoir in Colorado from the debris and sediment that can flow into drinking water sources after forest fires.

Making the most of too much or too little

Innovations in freshwater management didn’t end there. We investigated natural ecosystem adaptations to changing snowmelt patterns in Montana’s Glacier National Park with USGS researcher Dan Fagre. We toured Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer’s research facilities in Nebraska and Iowa to find out about new biotechnology traits the companies are inserting in corn strains to increase drought tolerance. And we learned about rainwater harvesting from community organizer Brad Lancaster in Tucson, Arizona, where drinking water is carted in at exorbitant costs from the Colorado River and pumped from a diminishing aquifer to supply the growing population.

“It’s insane that we’re spending all these resources bringing inferior water to this place when we have a much higher quality, salt-free rainwater falling from the sky,” Lancaster said. “What I find exciting about the potential [of rainwater harvesting] is the shift from conventional infrastructure—which is all about the drainage of resources—to harvesting and enhancing resources.”

Lancaster and others are finding new ways to work with what they have in a climate-changing world. Sure, it would be convenient if we could just transfer some of the extra precipitation inundating Keene and send it to thirsty Santa Fe or Tucson, but right now, we can’t. So, we have to find creative ways to make the most of things, whether it be making the most of limited irrigation water on farms or making the most of stormwater absorption capacity in cities. The people we met across the U.S. this summer are a testament to the fact that climate-smart water management is not only possible, but already happening.

 

Allie Goldstein and Kirsten Howard spent three months traveling around the United States uncovering stories of climate resilience–examples of people and places using their wits and resources to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Recent graduates of the University of Michigan’s master’s program at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, they drove Allie’s mom’s 2000 Toyota Sienna minivan, visiting 31 states and exploring 7 national parks. You can view more stories on their blog, www.adaptationstories.com, follow them on Twitter @kirstenandallie, like them on Facebook at Great American Adaptation Road Trip, or even email them at adaptationstories at gmail dot com.