According to several reports, we are already experiencing climate change and its impacts. The most recent report specific to New York state, funded by NYSERDA, is entitled ClimAID. Its purpose is to be a roadmap to prepare residents, businesses and governments to adapt for the changes that are under way. These changes may have profound impacts on each of us, our forests, our homes, our farms, our forests, our ecosystems, our watersheds and our water supplies. (See calsnews.cornell.edu/2011-fall/features/heat-is-on.html)
How do we know that climate change is already happening here? This report cites research that annual average temperatures in New York state have risen about 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, with winter warming climbing by 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit. ClimAID states that ''heavy downpours have increased over the past 50 years and that this trend is projected to continue, causing an increase in localized flash flooding in urban areas and hilly regions.'' (NYSERDA, 2011) Winter precipitation, with more in the form of rain, is expected to increase.
What else is projected to come? According to ClimAID, ''short-duration warm season droughts are projected to become more common, and less-frequent summer rainfall is expected to result in additional, and possibly longer, summer dry periods, potentially impacting the ability of water supply systems to meet demands.''
Source: Union of Concerned Scientists/NECIA 2007
What does this mean for each of us? Our homes, businesses and properties are likely to be subject to more frequent and intense flooding. Think about the devastating impact the August 2009 flood had on the people and services of the Gowanda and Silver Creek areas. The cost to relocate and rebuild the Tri-County Hospital was more than $18 million (Health Care Association of NYS). The cost to restore Gowanda's water system was $2.2 million. We, the taxpayers, insurance rate payers, and service users bear these huge costs. What if that happens more often and to more communities in our region over the next 30 years?
The shift to more winter precipitation and more intense storms has the potential to exacerbate existing watershed problems and lead to further degradation of our lakes and streams. Our watersheds, with their topography smoothed and reshaped to quickly shed precipitation as quickly as possible for agricultural, residential and commercial uses are ill-equipped to handle more high volume precipitation events. Streams are already suffering from excessive erosion due to unnaturally high runoff volume. High storm volumes exacerbate stream bank and bed erosion, which results in more movement of sand, gravel, silt and clay downstream. If a stream discharges to a lake, pond, reservoir or wetland, the receiving body suffers the impacts. For Chautauqua Lake, erosion from fields, construction sites, yards and stream banks provides fresh, nutrient-laden soil that fuel excessive aquatic plant growth. Sand and gravel deltas at stream mouths are noticeably impacting the surface area of the lake available for safe navigation and recreation. Without effective conservation best management practices employed in the watershed above throughout the stream corridor, problem sites such as the Dutch Hollow Creek delta may accelerate in its growth as climate changes.
What may the impacts be on your water supply? Flashier precipitation with more periods of drought can cause more runoff and less groundwater recharge, leading to more wells going dry during summer drought periods, dry stream beds, and lower lake levels. Public water supply reservoirs could experience faster loss of storage capacity from erosion and sedimentation, while needing larger capacity to handle drought periods.
Other infrastructure is being impacted also. Roads and storm water systems typically receive the most damage from heavy rain storms. Bridges and culverts that were sufficient to handle most storms 50 or 70 years ago when constructed in landscapes with little development will not be able to handle high flows of tomorrow. Municipalities will be forced to replace them before or after they fail, at significant taxpayer expense. Farms in our region will have to invest in more irrigation to get crops through drought periods, if it is economically feasible to do so. Dairy farms will have to invest in cooling technology to maintain milk production. That will place more pressure on ground and surface waters.
So what can be done to address these changes? First, let us acknowledge that these impacts can be very costly to deal with whether one is a homeowner, business owner or municipality. Therefore, it is logical for us to do everything possible personally and as a society to implement effective changes in development patterns, diet, and fossil fuel use to cut greenhouse gas production. Next, let us get moving to implement actions that will lessen unavoidable impacts on our water resources, our families, and our natural and human communities. More in Part II.
The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit 501(c)(3), member-supported watershed education and land trust organization. Donations made toward its Wells Bay Lakeshore Forest Conservation project will be matched up to $15,000, with $1 for every $2 donated between now and Jan. 6. For more information contact the CWC at 664-2166 or visit chautauquawatershed.org.