POLICY COLUMN: Drought, Flow, and Aquatic Resources

Thomas E. Bigford, AFS Policy Director

Thomas E. Bigford, AFS Policy Director

This column has many inspirations, including a drought discussion this past February organized by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the March 2016 White House Water Summit, my own worries about how new hydrologic patterns will affect fish, and a talk by Ellen Gilinsky, senior policy advisor in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Water. Gilinsky represents EPA on the National Fish Habitat Partnership’s Board of Directors (where I represent the American Fisheries Society), and she offered a lengthier discourse on this issue to the board on March 9, 2016. For perspective, think “fish” wherever you read “water,” “aquatic,” or “drought.” And for your sanity, be optimistic when you see “resilience.”

The Obama Administration has increased collaboration with its state, tribal, and local partners on water quality and quantity issues. In addition, the President informally established the National Drought Resilience Partnership (NDRP) as part of his Climate Action Plan (White House 2013). Recognizing that the nation was facing more frequent and intense droughts, the NDRP focuses on supporting watershed strategies for building long-term resilience and to target scientific and programmatic resources to help build a more drought-resilient nation. On March 21, 2016, President Obama formally established the NDRP through a Presidential Memorandum on Building National Capabilities for Long-Term Drought Resilience, accompanied by an Action Plan to implement drought resilience goals.

Pilot efforts are one NDRP priority. The NDRP has created a drought resilience demonstration project in the headwaters of Missouri River, with Montana as a full partner. The Missouri Headwaters Drought Resilience Demonstration Project will deliver drought mitigation tools and resources to watershed stakeholders and gather information from local groups. The goal is a model for information sharing, efficient water use and storage, and community collaboration as people prepare for drought while preserving cultural and ecological values.

The NDRP also emphasizes capacity and tools. Although the EPA’s work is mostly with utilities to provide safe drinking water, the aquatic connections are inescapable. In March 2016, the EPA released “Drought Response and Recovery for Water Utilities” (USEPA 2016a) along with a tool to assist small- to medium-sized water utilities. The guide focuses on short-term/emergency actions that build long-term drought resilience. Accompanying the guide is an interactive Case Study Map, a multimedia geo-platform website that documents seven case study utilities across the South and West (USEPA 2016b).

Accompanying the tools is a series of workshops. The EPA conducted two Drought Response and Recovery Workshops for Water Utilities in California’s Central Valley, providing an opportunity to share best practices and tools. Look for additional workshops this spring and summer. The EPA is also promoting greater residential and municipal water efficiency through its WaterSense program, an effort that during the past decade has helped consumers save a cumulative 1.1 trillion gallons of water and more than US$20 billion in water and energy bills.

To highlight fish and fish habitat, the EPA and U.S. Geological Survey (2015) released a draft report this past March on “Protecting Aquatic Life from Effects of Hydrologic Alteration.” The report zeroes in on biological integrity, flow targets, seasonal flow disruption, and fluctuating water temperatures, among other variables. For fish, hydrologic alteration can affect spawning, ability to gather nutrients, access to preferred habitat, and more. Hydrologic alteration can impair water bodies destined to support aquatic life. Stresses on aquatic life from hydrologic alterations may be further exacerbated through climate change. Recent climate trends reveal new frequencies and durations of extreme weather events that can affect flow and aquatic life.

To tackle these issues, and in conjunction with the United Nations World Water Day, the White House Water Summit was convened on March 22, 2016, to

• raise public awareness of water issues and potential

• catalyze ideas and actions to help build a sustainable
and secure water future through innovative science and
technology, and

• frame ideas for the next administration.

The summit focused domestically on the full range of topics relevant to aquatic systems, small communities, and metropolitan utilities. This event was livestreamed by the White House and is likely to be archived on that site.

The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies convened its own “Drought Forum” on February 29, 2016, to prepare for discussions at the National Fish Habitat Partnership’s board meeting mentioned above. And the discussion will continue at the American Fisheries Society Annual Meeting in Kansas City, where the Estuaries Section and Fish Habitat Section have joined forces on a special symposium on drought.

The momentum of these events, coupled with a snowy first day of spring covering my earliest-ever cherry tree blossoms, has me hoping for great success on all three goals for the Water Summit. Perhaps this discussion will expand from drought to the broader issues of flow because the water that doesn’t fall in parched watersheds will fall elsewhere. Our challenges just doubled!

Note: This column represents my personal opinions, as based on the comments of Ellen Gilinsky at the National Fish Habitat Partnership March 2016 Board Meeting. They do not necessarily represent those of the American Fisheries Society. Comments are invited at tbigford@fisheries.org.

USEPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2016a. Drought response and recovery for water utilities. Available: www.epa.gov/ waterutilityresponse/drought-response-and-recovery-waterutilities. (March 2016).

———. 2016b. Emergency response for drinking water and wastewater utilities. Available: www.epa.gov/waterutilityresponse (March 2016).

USEPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and USGS (U.S. Geological Survey). 2015. Protecting aquatic life from effects of hydrologic alteration. EPA-USGS Technical Report. Available: www. epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-03/documents/aquaticlife-hydrologic alteration-report.pdf. (March 2016).

White House. 2013. National climate action plan. Available: www. whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/image/president27sclimateactionplan.p f. (March 2016).

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