Several IJC boards are working to learn how climate change will affect activities in decades to come, according to a recent Commission report. Depending on a board’s location and mandate, those activities may include overseeing the operation of dams, monitoring water quality and aquatic ecosystem health, and studying options to mitigate extreme high or low water events.
The IJC’s Climate Change Guidance Framework Highlights Report notes steps taken in watersheds across the boundary to better understand the regional impacts of climate change, including Osoyoos Lake, the St. Croix River, Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River, the Souris River, the St. Mary and Milk rivers, and the Rainy-Lake of the Woods system. The boards active in each of these watersheds are at varying stages in the framework process, as detailed in the report.
In its August 2021 report, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, encouraged governments and managers to do more to adapt to climate change. The IJC’s work has echoed these findings for several years; the Commission developed its Climate Change Guidance Framework in 2017, which lays out a four-step process for boards to determine how each one’s unique responsibilities may be impacted.
These steps are: organize, analyze, act and update.
Organizing means each board formulates its climate-related objectives and assesses the information needed to determine whether its duties could be impacted. The analyze step involves gathering information and reviewing it to answer those questions, while acting adjusts how a board will fulfill its obligations going forward. Finally, boards are expected to update their climate change assessments periodically as more information and new conditions emerge.
The St. Croix River Watershed Board served as the pilot site for the framework process back in 2018. At the time, the board found that the impacts of climate change will likely result in more frequent low water flows in the watershed, which may require amendments to existing water management guidelines to continue meeting water flow requirements established by governments.
In the years since, the framework’s principles have been used as part of the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River Study Board’s examination of flood risks and mitigation. The study board’s proposed solutions were evaluated using the framework to determine how they may withstand potential future flood levels brought on by climate change.
Similarly, framework principles were used by the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee as part of its Expedited Review of Plan 2014, which offers guidance on how to respond to fluctuating inflows and outflows from Lake Ontario. The committee applied the framework principles to determine how its recommended regulation plan would stand up to potential future extreme weather conditions.
The Accredited Officers of the St. Mary and Milk Rivers also is considering framework principles to study how climate change may affect the apportionment of water between Canada and the United States, along with possible managerial or structural changes to continue meeting apportionment goals laid out by the two countries. A separate St. Mary and Milk Rivers Study Board is looking into these apportionment questions, including the climate one, in more detail.
Finally, the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board is developing a plan to apply the framework in its region.
The Climate Change Guidance Framework was developed through the IJC’s International Watersheds Initiative, which supports a holistic approach to watershed management that examines all aspects of a watershed and seeks local support and input for solutions to issues, before major issues or conflicts arise.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.