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Manage Rivers, Lakes and Other Freshwater Habitats for Climate Change

Rising air temperatures, due to climate change, are already warming freshwater habitats. Some lakes and streams have already experienced water loss due to summer droughts. These, and other changes, are likely to continue and accelerate in the coming decades.

Climate Change Impacts: Current and Predicted

Freshwater habitats include large lakes, ponds, rivers, wetlands, streams and seasonal vernal pools. The response of these ecosystems to climate change impacts will vary based on current conditions, regional changes in temperature and precipitation, and more.

Observed and predicted climate change impacts to freshwater habitats may include:

  • Earlier spring floods, and/or stronger and more frequent flooding. The overall amount of spring runoff may also decline, as winter snowpack volume decreases.
  • Greater risk of erosion and sedimentation.
  • Species — both plants and wildlife — shifting their ranges to previously cooler environments. Some coldwater species — trout, for example — may lose a significant percentage of their current range.
  • More frequent and severe droughts may reduce water volume in some habitats, thus threatening vital wildlife habitat.
  • Greater risk of disease and insect pests, including the potential for these stressors to shift their ranges into regions where they previously could not survive.
  • Reductions in lake or river ice.

Additional information about predicted climate change impacts to freshwater habitats, ecosystems and wildlife can be found in the following places:

Recommendations for Adaptation

Warmer water, earlier snowmelt and the increased severity and frequency of both floods and droughts will impact freshwater ecosystems across the United States.

Land trusts that manage freshwater habitats may wish to:

Specific recommendations for the adaptation of freshwater habitats to climate change include:

  • Assess vulnerability of habitat(s) to climate change impacts, such as earlier snow-melt, increased flood risk or dryer summers. Note: these impacts will vary by region and freshwater ecosystem.
  • Determine whether currently protected habitats are likely to shift their range northward, or to higher elevations. If so, consider the feasibility and value of extending the protected area’s boundaries to include this new territory.
  • If species migration seems likely, look to remove barriers that may impede migration (dams, for example).
  • Increase the overall health and resilience of existing habitats by removing invasive plants, restoring native species, and protecting habitats from development and other stressors.
  • Wherever possible, protect the health of established ecosystem services, such as stream buffers, which may help protect a stream or river from increased erosion of nearby land.

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