CLIMATE CHANGE & WATER QUALITY
MRC’S STATEMENT ON CLIMATE CHANGE & WATER QUALITY
The health of the Mississippi River – and of those communities alongside it – is dependent on the quality of the water flowing into it. Long-term changes in climate and resulting extreme weather events have increased the amount of runoff into streams, devastated critical habitat for fish and wildlife, and impacted the people and communities who depend on the River. Beyond its current work, MRC seeks to evaluate the impacts of climate change on our nation’s greatest river system and work on policy and regulatory solutions to curb them. Working together, the organizations within the Collaborative and their partners can improve water quality while making the River and its communities more resilient to climate change.
The Mississippi River Basin is a critical component of ecosystems and communities in over a dozen states. A healthy Mississippi means healthier cities and healthier people. The health of the Mississippi River – and of those communities alongside it – is dependent on the quality of the water flowing into it. Long-term changes in climate and resulting extreme weather events have increased the amount of runoff into streams, devastated critical habitat for fish and wildlife, and impacted the people and communities who depend on the River. These effects are worsened by the fact that more than half of the region’s wetlands have been destroyed by human causes, along with their ability to absorb flood waters and purify polluted runoff.
MRC was established to protect the health of the River, so much of the work MRC already does helps reduce some of the most devastating impacts of climate change. Beyond its current work, MRC seeks to evaluate the impacts of climate change on our nation’s greatest river system and work on policy and regulatory solutions to curb them. Working together, the organizations within the Collaborative and their partners can improve water quality while making the River and its communities more resilient to climate change.
Flooding. Increased flooding is one of the most immediate effects of climate change. As global temperatures rise, so does the occurrence of flooding events. Increased flooding flushes sediment and runoff pollution from our farm fields into our waterways and overwhelms our wastewater systems. This problem is exacerbated by the massive destruction of wetlands and over-development of floodplains that have occurred over the course of the last century. Wetlands and floodplains are the landscape’s natural buffer to deal with periods of high water.
Nitrogen and Phosphorus Pollution. Algal blooms caused by nitrogen and phosphorus pollution – like the one that shut down the City of Toledo in 2014 and regularly threaten the water supply for Des Moines – are likely to increase with climate change. Longer summers and warmer temperatures provide ripe conditions for harmful algae that threatens our drinking supply and destroys aquatic ecosystems.
Impacts on Agriculture. The impacts of climate change, some of which are already being experienced, include erratic weather patterns and extreme weather events. For farmers, this means coping with both increased water in their fields and more frequent droughts. When farm fields flood, more polluted runoff contaminated with fertilizer, pesticides, and sediment washes into our streams and creeks. Higher temperatures and mild winters are predicted to increase the number of pests, increasing the amount of chemicals farmers will need to use to fight them off. Increased use of chemicals and increased runoff doubles the negative impact on our water, increasing the need for stronger protections and proactive measures.
Ecosystem Changes. The Mississippi River Basin is home to diverse ecosystems, all of which are dependent on a clean, healthy river. More frequent high-heat days, milder winters, and late-spring freezes are all symptoms of climate change experienced up and down the River. These changes alter which species can survive where. River communities are already seeing pests move into new areas and native species struggling to survive in their traditional zones. Local economies built around natural resources, such as forests, wildlife, and fisheries are already witnessing the negative impacts of climate change.
Solutions to climate change issues usually involve mitigation (working to reduce the causes of climate change) or adaptation (accepting climate change as inevitable and developing and implementing systems to better cope with the effects while making communities more resilient). Any Basin-wide climate change mitigation or adaptation projects may include the following:
- Protection and restoration of wetlands
- Reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution
- Improvement of agricultural practices
- Reform of government pollution permits
- Green infrastructure
- Energy choices
WHAT IS MRC DOING TO REDUCE THE NEGATIVE IMPACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE ON WATER QUALITY?
Protection and restoration of wetlands. MRC’s work to protect and restore wetlands not only protects a diverse and vital ecosystem, but it also protects communities from flooding and rising sea levels. Restoring wetlands helps to slow climate change by – quite literally – absorbing climate change impacts.
Wetlands are vital for storing flood waters and filtering pollution. They serve as a unique and critical buffer in coastal communities and in floodplains along the Mississippi River. Wetlands also serve as sinks for carbon dioxide, which decreases the amount in the air that can contribute to climate change.
MRC has spent the last decade protecting wetlands up and down the Mississippi River from development and drainage. More opportunities exist to support projects that reconnect the River with its natural floodplains and to advocate for regulatory reforms that support conversion of land back to floodplain.
Reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus is the cause of toxic algal blooms that threaten ecosystems and our drinking water. These threats will likely increase with climate change because warm water spurs faster growth of algae. As algal blooms grow they absorb more sunlight, increasing the water temperature and feeding the spread of more algae. Basin-wide changes such as agricultural reforms and U.S. EPA monitoring and protection of waters from nitrogen and phosphorus pollution is critical to curbing this problem. MRC’s work to promote the establishment of numeric nutrient standards will help in the race to curb toxic algal blooms.
Improvement of agricultural practices. Sustainable agricultural practices can reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, curtail erosion, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Addressing the use of fertilizers on fields can directly impact the threats from toxic algal blooms as described above. Improving manure management techniques can improve water quality while also reducing the amount of methane, the second most prevalent greenhouse gas, released into the air. And by advocating for more widespread use of conservation practices we can protect soil from erosion, a resource that we will need in order to protect crops and ecosystems threatened by extreme weather events.
Reform of government pollution permits. Local and federal permitting programs need improvement. Many permit limits are based on outdated precipitation information and should be adjusted and based on current, available data. The stormwater permitting process should look at an entire impacted watershed rather than just individual dischargers when making determinations in order to better protect the entire watershed.
Green infrastructure. MRC advocates for programs that restore the River by making the communities alongside it more resilient to climate change. Green infrastructure offers opportunities for river communities to resist the impacts of floods and higher temperatures while preserving the River’s natural functions and benefits. Even projects as simple as tree-planting can have significant water management benefits if performed as part of larger, strategic green infrastructure planning.
Energy Choices. How we produce, transport, and burn fuel for energy has significant impacts on our climate and water quality. It is nearly impossible to generate energy without relying upon or impacting a water source. Throughout the Basin, MRC members are working on a variety of issues to address our reliance on fossil fuels, such as mining and fracking, transport of oil by rail and pipeline, coal ash landfills in floodplains, renewable energy, and energy efficiency. These efforts address simultaneous threats to water quality and the causes of climate change.
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