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Confronting Drought With the Tools of Nature

There are successful models for leveraging natural systems to improve water quality and supplies, enhance biodiversity and blunt the ravages of wildfires. There’s even something we can learn from beavers.

A North American beaver working on it’s dam.
“Beaver-based restoration” projects that re-establish small, leaky and temporary dams in degraded stream systems can create more subsurface water retention, provide natural firebreaks and refuges for wildlife, and even alleviate the impacts of post-fire flooding.
(Chase Dekker/Shutterstock)
The ongoing drought in the West has dramatically impacted the health, well-being and livelihoods of millions of the region’s residents, from farmers in Colorado struggling to sustain their crops to Californians who have lost their homes to wildfire. The new federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides substantial funding, including $8.3 billion for water-related programs in the West, to begin to mitigate and adapt to our drying climate. But achieving the scale of impact needed requires a willingness to prioritize investments in nature-based solutions that protect, restore and sustainably manage existing water systems.

Water has frequently taken a back seat in climate change discussions. In the past, international, national and state leaders have devoted the majority of their attention to reducing direct emissions. But last year at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, international leaders began to shift discussions to also prioritize water and nature-based solutions. It is critical that our elected officials at the national and state levels follow suit. Matching the scale of the problem demands not an “either/or” approach but a “both/and.”

The good news is that we already have successful project models that demonstrate how to leverage natural systems to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

By funding strategic and science-based forest management, for example, we can better address conditions that have led to catastrophic wildfires that ravage communities, release massive amounts of carbon, pollute waterways and fill reservoirs with sediment and debris. Rather than simply removing trees, state and federal agencies can get the greatest climate and multi-benefit bang for their buck by using ecological forest management that tests ways to mute fires to a more tenable level and reduce their outsized danger. With time, the forest can provide more efficient and effective carbon capture, more habitat for wildlife, and a healthier landscape that yields cleaner and more reliable water supplies.

State and federal leaders should also prioritize funding for projects that reconnect floodplains to rivers to naturally regulate floodwaters and help provide clean water supplies. Over time, floodplains throughout the West have been separated from the adjoining water sources by dams and levees that stop the flow of water or by land management that channelizes rivers. Projects that restore the natural course of floodplains in appropriate locations can improve groundwater storage, contribute to a fertile environment for vegetation and wildlife, and reduce devastating floods.

Increased development and other land management decisions have also, over time, caused river systems throughout the West to become less complex and less able to hold and store water. In some areas we can restore systems by simply taking a cue from one of nature’s most effective engineers: the beaver. Referred to as “beaver-related restoration,” projects that re-establish small, leaky and temporary dams in degraded stream systems can create more subsurface water retention, provide natural firebreaks and refuges for wildlife, and even alleviate the impacts of post-fire flooding. This can be done by restoring beaver populations in strategic areas or by creating human-made structures that mimic their effect.

The results of actions like these are clear. Healthy forests, wetlands and rivers reduce carbon emissions while improving water quality, enhancing biodiversity and helping to blunt the ravages of outsized wildfires. Even beyond their ability to increase resilience and mitigate the climate crisis, these strategies protect green spaces for responsible recreation and support biodiversity. This in turn ensures that our ecosystems can supply oxygen, clean air and water, pollination of plants, and more — creating a sustainable natural system.

None of these tactics alone will secure water in the West or elsewhere, but each can make a difference. And all of them must be a part of a larger climate strategy that extends from international agreements to national priorities to state and local efforts. We are at a moment where federal, state and local leaders must step up to solve multiple issues at once and not just fund business as usual. We cannot address climate change without protecting and restoring nature. By doing so, we can protect and restore ourselves.

Felicia Marcus, a former chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board, is the William C. Landreth Visiting Fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West program. Jill Ozarski is an environment program officer at the Walton Family Foundation.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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