Information is one tool being used to prepare for climate change, from the Columbia River basin in the west to the St. Croix River basin in the east. The IJC is developing a climate change guidance framework to help its boards plan for the future. The goal is to help determine how boards can address climate change within their mandates, what data is available and what’s needed, and what changes individual watersheds may face in coming decades.
According to IJC Canadian Section Sciences and Engineering Director Dr. Pierre-Yves Caux, each board needs to be able to make decisions based on its directive. Some boards manage water flows that benefit water users. Others have water quality concerns. To make informed decisions, propose a regulation change or make recommendations, boards need up-to-date, relevant information using the best available science and local input.
If trends suggest a basin could face larger spring freshets, more algal blooms or a greater risk of summer flooding, for example, boards and water managers would want to adjust their regulations and plans to account for those outcomes. But first they need information to understand trends and risks and what consequences these could bring in their wake.
Currently, watershed boards collect data through International Watersheds Initiative (IWI) projects on an ad-hoc basis, Caux said. The framework, when complete, will establish a more systematic way to collect information on climate vulnerabilities identified by particular boards. If a board wants to assess the vulnerability in the system from climate change for fish and wildlife, water levels, or impacts on traditional ways of life for First Nations or tribes, it would develop specific indicators for these topics – such as fish spawning habits, precipitation, or wild rice harvests - to keep track of, and maintain an ongoing or regularly timed information-gathering system.
“It’s about the vulnerabilities in your system,” Caux said. “It’s not about collecting everything. This is about focusing on vulnerabilities and what’s of concern to those in the watershed.”
Under the framework, the focus is first understanding how responsive the system is to climate change, the range of possible future uncertainties and outcomes, and using climate science to help inform researchers when they’re looking over collected data. Since boards work with local communities, organizations and interests, having a good baseline of accurate data to supplement those factors is vital to effectively make plans and decisions. Such a baseline takes years to build up, Caux said, in the range of 10 to 20 years.
Additionally, since climate change is an ongoing process, boards will want to continue to gather data and make course corrections if unexpected outcomes emerge – an expected dry spring future could begin to give way to a wetter trend, for example. The proposed framework incorporates adaptive management practices that give boards the flexibility to adjust their operational plans as necessary.
Finally, the framework proposal suggests creating an information hub to help boards share data, solutions and expertise. This way, boards could exchange expertise, continually update research and activities and look for links or comparisons to other watersheds.
The IJC held a multi-board workshop in May to discuss the climate change framework, get feedback and determine possible ways to implement the proposal.