While the federal government and far too many state governments still do not see climate change as a top priority, the Midwest has suffered immense flooding that left death and massive damage in its wake.
Areas along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers have been most affected by the floods, though the damage has spread throughout the entire region. In many instances, flood barriers and sandbanks could not prevent cities from succumbing the rising floodwaters.
Climate change has been a major cause of the recent spike in flooding throughout the world, as stated in the Assessment Reports compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. With increased precipitation and rising average temperatures, flood damage is exacerbated, and the destruction of infrastructure becomes inevitable.
Excess nutrients in the soil and pollutants flow into nearby streams and wreak havoc downstream. This is one of the most visible instances of the impact of climate change on the American Midwest, to date. However, it will get worse — projections predict an increased risk for inland flooding with average annual damages projected to be in excess of $500 million by 2050.
The most serious water-related impacts caused by climate change are the changing patterns of precipitation that increase the possibility and intensity of flooding, droughts, and pollution in waters. Additionally, water temperature rises along with air temperature that causes less dissolved oxygen, which in turn harms wildlife in the water that rely on oxygen.
Rising sea levels caused by increased ice melt has become a major threat to coastal cities like New Orleans, Miami, and New York City. Now, it has become plainly apparent that the American heartland is also at risk. Additionally, projections for many regions in North America predict less snow and more rainfall. Snowmelt serves as an important water source during growing seasons in lowlands. With the changing climate, these regions will face lower water flows and decreased access to water. All these impacts on water will cause additional stress on the nation’s water systems as well as on all water-dependent sectors.
To successfully address the water policy issues resulting from climate change and mitigate their consequences, all levels of government have to work together toward the same teleological end. The U.S. government must act in a number of ways to address the threat of climate change to water. First, the Water of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule needs to be redefined and it has to guarantee federal protection of all waters in the country. Earlier this year the Trump administration announced their intent to narrowly redefine the rule in a way that would leave 18% of streams and 51% of wetlands nationwide without any federal protection. Wetlands filter pollution and protect communities from flooding — removing protection from these vital natural buffers only exacerbates the problem. Added to that, wetlands absorb and slow down the release of agricultural runoff pollution that serves as a protection for the rivers with which they hydrologically connect. Without the help and funding of the federal government, protecting the waters cannot be carried out properly.
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Congress is also considering enlisting the aid of Green Infrastructure to protect the nation’s waters. The solution to tackle climate change with nature itself would be beneficial in multiple ways. For example, the use of wetlands will not only help waters but also reduce carbon dioxide in the air.
With public awareness along with smart policies on all government levels, the impacts of climate change on our waters can be tackled and water quality as well as public health and safety can be assured.
• Johanna Moeller a water policy researcher at the Northeast Midwest Institute in Washington, DC.