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Climate Change and More Frequent Downpours Exacerbating Erosion

The vast majority (97%+) of the scientific community’s experts on Earth’s climate agree that our climate is changing, that this change will be enormously disruptive and that it is centered around humanity’s impacts on the planet. It isn’t just fossil fuel use that intensifies the natural “greenhouse effect” that our wonderful atmosphere provides. Habitat destruction, such as the conversion of forests to grassland or lawn, results in a hotter environment that stores less atmospheric carbon and exacerbates the effects even more.

One impact of climate change that is getting well-deserved attention is the increase in high-precipitation events. Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas, in 2017 and dropped a record setting 40+ inches of rain and caused $125 billion in damages. This storm was Houston’s third “500-year flood event” in three years. Hurricane Florence hit the east coast of the United States in September 2018 and dropped record levels of rainfall on North and South Carolina in a “1,000-year storm event.” Baltimore, Maryland, experienced the wettest year on record in 2018 and set multiple single-day and monthly precipitation records.

Across the nation, single events are producing massive volumes of water in ways that historically was not the case. While a single event cannot be attributed to climate change alone, the increase of frequency in events can provide insight to the scope of the problem. Scientists estimated that the rainfall from Hurricane Harvey was increased by 15-38% due to climate change. It would have been an epic storm with or without climate change, but it was made worse because of this global phenomenon.

Heavy rainfall does more than flood our cities and destroy property. It causes tremendous amounts of erosion and washes tons of fertilizers and other pollutants into waterways at higher rates than normal. Sediment- and pollutant-laden streams carry nutrients to bodies of water, choking fish with turbid conditions and providing excessive food for aquatic plants. The record rainfall in Baltimore and surrounding states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed has been so intense it has caused the Chesapeake Bay to receive a grade of “D+” in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s annual assessment of water quality and ecological health. This is down from a “C-“ in 2016, which was the Bay’s best score since the assessment started in 1998 and the first downgraded condition in a decade.

These negative impacts in the Chesapeake Bay resonate with similar issues we have here in locally. A 2015 storm in northern Chautauqua County hit municipalities such as Brocton, Silver Creek and Fredonia with as much as 5 inches of rain in just 2 hours, washing out roads and gouging streambanks. Similar events have occurred with greater frequency in the intervening years as well. For Chautauqua Lake, the influx of stormwater is extremely worrisome, as the Lake already struggles with excessive plant growth and harmful algae blooms.The lessons learned in the Chesapeake Bay watershed can be brought home to use here.

Stormwater contains sediment, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, gasoline, oil, litter and a host of other environmental toxins. Restoration efforts in the Chesapeake Bay have reduced the amount of these pollutants that enters waterways and distorts the ecosystem of the Bay. This is what we need to do here locally. Installing buffer strips along Chautauqua Lake’s shore is critical, but it is just as critical to provide the same buffers along all of the streams and wetlands that feed the major lakes of our County.

Reducing impermeable pavement such as concrete and blacktop so water percolates into the ground instead of flowing overland can aid in using the soil’s natural water filtration capacity to remove these pollutants – before they get to a stream or lake. Private landowners can help out too through conserving wetlands, trees and forests, declining to use chemical fertilizers and herbicides on their lawns, planting native wildflower gardens in areas that don’t need to be mowe, and planting trees and shrubs where there is available space to do so.

CWC has been working with a variety of partners for 28 years to address stormwater issues, primarily through land conservation and public education.

Over the years we have collaborated with private landowners, municipalities and other governmental agencies, industry and nonprofits to raise funds, initiate projects and conserve the important places in the County that collect, store and slowly release stormwater runoff either to groundwater or to our streams and lakes, which reduces flooding, erosion, sedimentation and stormwater pollution. Ultimately, healthy waters flow from healthy landscapes. Without protecting the land, we cannot protect the water.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or www.facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.

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