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Creating Climate Ready Estuaries

"Effective adaptation will help reduce future costs because we’re taking action while we still have time, and while the cost is less."
John Wilson,
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Because of their vulnerability to climate change, our nation’s estuaries may be harbingers for the rest of the country regarding potential impacts from sea level rise, increasing storm intensities, and other effects. But with limited data on what the actual impacts of climate change will be, how are estuary managers supposed to assess their ecosystems’ vulnerabilities, develop adaptation plans, and implement adaptation measures?

"We think the vulnerability is so high for estuaries that they have to begin to plan now," says Jeremy Martinich, climate policy analyst for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Climate Change Division. "When you don’t have perfect information, it creates a number of challenges."

To help coastal communities in their efforts, the EPA and the National Estuary Programs kicked off the Climate Ready Estuaries program in 2007. Six estuaries were selected to be case studies to develop plans to help to protect sensitive coastal ecosystems, infrastructure, and economies from the effects of climate change.

After just one year, the pilot programs are beginning to demonstrate results and provide lessons learned for other coastal resource managers. A Web-based toolkit has been developed where coastal managers can get information and links to websites, reports, and other resources.

"Ready, fire, aim—that’s the thought we are really trying to encourage," says Martinich. "Push to go forward with developing preliminary adaptation plans using a process that’s flexible and interactive. The plan can be revisited and updated over time when new or better information comes out."

Feeling the Impacts

Not just places where rivers meet the sea, estuaries encompass whole ecosystems where millions of people live, work, and play.

Estuaries are projected to be particularly vulnerable to climate change effects, such as sea level rise, altered frequencies and intensities of precipitation, increased water temperatures, and more intense storm events.

The resulting impacts may include damage to and loss of wetlands, coastal property, and infrastructure, changes to water availability and quality, including impacts to groundwater and drinking water, and changes in habitat, fisheries, and other plant and animal distributions.

Getting Competitive

Recognizing the seriousness of the estuaries’ vulnerabilities, the EPA’s Air and Water offices came together with the National Estuary Programs to develop a program to help local decision makers and resource managers take proactive steps to adapt to climate change.

"Effective adaptation will help reduce future costs because we’re taking action while we still have time, and while the cost is less," notes John Wilson, program analyst in the EPA Office of Water’s Oceans and Coastal Protection Division.

The six estuaries selected through a competitive process to pilot the program were Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program in North Carolina, Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program in Florida, Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership in New Hampshire and Maine, Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, Massachusetts Bays Program, and the San Francisco Estuary Project.

A Unique Process

While the estuaries received some EPA technical assistance and guidance, they were very much tasked with coming up with their own plans.

"There’s a lot of wanting to be told what the process is, but we actually think that every program is so unique that they have to develop their own process," explains Martinich.

The guidance they were given included engaging old and new stakeholders, assessing vulnerability to the level of detail necessary, being explicit about the choices made based on acceptable risks and costs, clearly detailing specific implementation actions, and making sure the plan and process are flexible.

"We were also quite intent that this not just be a planning exercise and are encouraging movement toward implementation," adds Wilson.

Rising to the Surface

While it is still early in the pilot estuaries’ processes, there are already lessons rising to the surface. One of these is narrowing the initial planning scope.

For instance, the Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership has had success conducting a vulnerability assessment on the impacts to transportation infrastructure, such as culverts, and what measures should be taken if precipitation increases in the future.

"The narrow focus initially is helping them build support for additional vulnerability and adaptation work," Wilson notes.

Searching for and adapting existing data is another take-away message.

"We got a lot of requests in the beginning for high-resolution data," says Martinich. "There was a strong feeling in many places that they just didn’t have the information to do inundation mapping. In some places that was true, but what we began to find is if people dig around, there’s a fair amount of data out there."

Other lessons are to look at climate change in the context of existing comprehensive planning efforts, join forces with other related efforts, and create an "adaptive" process that easily responds to changing information and events.

The Right Tool

To help pass on information to other estuaries and coastal programs about climate change impacts and adaptation, the Web-based Climate Ready Estuaries Coastal Toolkit was developed.

The site offers information on monitoring climate change, coastal vulnerability and adaptation tools, smart growth in the context of climate change, communications and outreach materials, adaptation planning, sustainable finance options, and where to find data.

"It’s an evolving site," Wilson says. "We would very much like folks to suggest things we should add."

"One take-away lesson from all this," says Martinich, "is that climate change adaptation has become a high priority for coastal managers, and there’s a lot of opportunities to coordinate and collaborate, and bring other folks into the process."

He adds, "While uncertainties exist, it’s better to get moving and be flexible and adapt as our climate continues to change."


For additional information, you may contact Jeremy Martinich at (202) 343-9871, or martinich.jeremy@epa.gov, or John Wilson at (202) 566-1158, or wilson.john@epa.gov.

Additional Resources

More information on Climate Ready Estuaries

The Climate Ready Estuaries Coastal Toolkit

Adaptation options relevant to estuarine management goals

Information on the EPA’s water climate change strategy

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