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Idaho: Stream flow and Climate Change

The waterways of the Pacific Northwest run deep. They unify the region that includes Idaho, Oregon and Washington by connecting the glaciers of its high volcanoes to its fertile valleys to the Pacific Ocean. Water coursing through streams and rivers is the lifeblood critical to urban and agricultural uses and to the vitality of aquatic ecosystems. Many iconic fish species in Idaho and the region such as salmon, steelhead, Pacific lamprey, bull trout and other native trout species, depend upon cool and plentiful stream flows to survive. But climate change is causing many stream flows to respond differently than they have in the past.  Idaho_bulltrout

A changing climate is already bringing warmer air temperatures, an increasing proportion of winter precipitation falling as rain, earlier snowmelt and reduced spring snow pack. These changes all manifest in stream flow responses with decreased base flows, rising summer water temperatures, and more frequent winter flooding from rain-on-snow events.

“The complex work of conserving and recovering fish populations in the Pacific Northwest has grown substantially more challenging in light of our changing climate – this has become increasingly clear in the last several years with recent scientific assessments and projections,” said Dan Shively, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Regional Fish Passage and Habitat Partnerships Coordinator.  “Robust and diverse fish communities require healthy watersheds and habitat; or more simply put, an abundance of cool, clean water."

The Service’s Water Resources Program is assisting resource managers throughout Idaho and the Pacific Region to understand which streams are most affected by climate change. Understanding and modeling stream flows is complex, and is a leading example of how agencies are working together to lay the groundwork for region-wide climate change adaptation strategies.

In the Pacific Northwest, both elevation and geology have an important influence on stream flow responses – and therefore not all streams are responding to climate change in the same way. Upcoming published research by a team of hydrologists from the Service, NOAA-Fisheries and the U.S. Geological Survey provides greater understanding of how stream flow responses vary. The research builds on a substantive body of work by the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, among others.
The research concluded that groundwater-dominated river systems of the Pacific Northwest, drawing water from deep beneath the surface, are less vulnerable to some climate change impacts and consequently may serve a greater strategic importance for sustaining aquatic ecosystems and the fish populations they support. These river systems, while vulnerable to the effects of changes in snow pack and winter precipitation, may provide cooler water and greater adaptive capacity to serve as refuges for coldwater-loving fish and other species. 

Shively is using these findings to develop a strategic approach to regional habitat restoration efforts.Working as an interdisciplinary team with members of the Service’s Regional Water Resources Program and with scientists from other agencies and organizations provides critical understanding of climate change and water resources, Shively said. That understanding, in turn, will provide a foundation for broad landscape-scale strategies that will serve as the “blueprint” for conservation of aquatic habitats and fishery resources in the region.“Understanding how changing climate is likely to affect stream flow and water temperature decades ahead is paramount when contemplating today’s strategies for investing in both the present and future for healthy aquatic habitats,” he said.  “Our collective interagency and partnership efforts are intended to provide the foundation for supporting self-sustaining populations of salmon, steelhead, trout, Pacific lamprey, and many other native fish species.” 

This article re-posted from US Fish and Wildlife Service's Open Spaces blog. The USFWS will be posting new stories about climate impacts every day for 50 days. 

Authors: Tim Mayer, Hydrologist, Water Resources Branch, Pacific Region and Jeff Maslow, Program Assistant, Pacific Region

Photo courtesy USFWS


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