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Climate Change Preparation in the Rogue River Basin

rogue graves creek clipReports and Handouts:

The Rogue River Basin, located in southwest Oregon, consists of a diverse array of communities, economies and ecological systems. The Basin’s rich history, beautiful setting, and recreational and employment opportunities attract visitors and residents to the region year-round. Climate change is likely to produce significant new stresses and alterations to water quantity and quality, fish, wildlife, plant life, forests and fire regimes of the Rogue Basin.

The Rogue will not be the only region to experience the effects of climate change. Every region of the West, nation, and the world will be affected. These changes will, however, have important consequences for the economy, infrastructure, and human services on which the people and communities within the Rogue Basin rely on for their quality of life.

In the summer of 2008, the University of Oregon Climate Leadership Initiative, in partnership with The Geos Institute and the MAPSS Team at the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, initiated a project to assess the likely consequences of climate change for the Rogue River Basin. The project began by downscaling three climate models (CSIRO, MIROC, and Hadley) and incorporating a global vegetation change model (MC1) used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A panel of scientists and land managers then assessed the likely risks posed by changing climate conditions to natural systems and made recommendations for increasing the capacity of ecosystems and species to withstand and adapt to those stressors. In turn, a panel of policy experts used the information provided by the scientists to assess the likely risks to economic, built, and human systems within the Rogue Basin posed by climate change and recommended ways to increase resistance and resiliency of those systems.

rogue basin map

In this summary:

Future Projections for the Rogue Basin:

Temperature

  • Annual average temperatures are likely to increase from 1 to 3° F (0.5 to 1.6° C) by around 2040, and 4 to 8° F (2.2 to 4.4° C) by around 2080.
  • Summer temperatures may increase dramatically reaching 7 to 15° F (3.8 to 8.3° C) above baseline by 2080, while winter temperatures may increase 3 to 8°F (1.6 to 3.3° C).

Precipitation and Snowpack

  • Total precipitation may remain roughly similar to historical levels but increasingly is likely to fall in the mid-winter months rather than in the spring, summer and fall.
  • Rising temperatures will cause snow to turn to rain in lower elevations and decrease average January snowpack significantly, with a corresponding decline in runoff and streamflows. According to one model, snowpack will be reduced 75% from the baseline by 2040, and another 75% from 2040 to an insignificant amount by 2080.

Storms, Flooding, and Drought

  • The Basin is likely to experience more severe storm events, variable weather, higher and flashier winter and spring runoff events, and increased flooding.
  • Both wet and dry cycles are likely to last longer and be more extreme, leading to both periods of deeper drought and those of more extensive flooding.

Wildfire

  • Reduced snowpack and soil moisture along with hotter temperatures and longer fire seasons likely will increase significantly the amount of biomass (vegetation) consumed by wildfire.Preparing for Climate Change

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Based on these projections, the science panel identified the following likely consequences for aquatic and terrestrial systems and species in the Rogue Basin:

Aquatic Systems and Species

  • Increased storm and fire frequency will increase sediment and nutrient loads as well as persistent organic pollutants and other contaminants entering the Rogue River and its tributaries. Along with higher water temperatures these factors will reduce water quality, threatening the recruitment and survival of young native fish.
  • Shifts in the timing of stream flows could trigger earlier emergences of aquatic insects and shifts in the timing of adult salmon and steelhead spawning migration, egg incubation and hatch, and smolt outmigration. The result is likely to increase the risk of a disconnection between the timing of fish life stages and the availability of primary food resources.
  • Warmer water temperatures and extended low summer base flows extending well past the summer months are likely to decrease dissolved oxygen, produce more disease, and create a greater frequency of conditions lethal to native fish.
  • More storms and flooding likely will increase streambank erosion and increase channel downcutting resulting in degraded stream habitat and habitat fragmentation precipitating a reduction in biotic carrying capacity, heightened susceptibility to flood and drought, and a contraction of the stream network.

Terrestrial Systems and Species

  • Increasingly drought stressed vegetation, due to higher evaporation rates, will lead to increases in insect outbreaks and disease. Stressed and dying vegetation will produce larger and more frequent wildfires.
  • Rapid shifts in climate, compounded by habitat fragmentation, will complicate the opportunity for some native vegetation and wildlife to adjust and disperse, leading to shifting populations.
  • Changes in the timing of flowering and insect emergence could disrupt historical relationships between migratory species, and especially long-distance avian migrants, and prefered food availability.
  • Amphibians may be especially at risk due to the low mobility of some species and increased drying and habitat conversion expected from climate change.
  • High elevation wildlife and plant species may not be able to make the shift to new areas due to a lack of available habitat.
  • Disease and disease vectors are expected to increase with warmer temperatures. Individuals under stress from climate change and other stressors will also be more susceptible to disease.

Both Aquatic and Terrestrial Systems

  • The changes described above mean increased vulnerability of aquatic and terrestrial species should be expected.
  • Expansion in invasive species may also be likely as conditions become more favorable for exotics and less favorable for some natives.

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Based on the analysis of the risks to natural systems, the policy panel identified the following risks to built, human and economic systems in the Rogue Basin: 

Infrastructure

  • Increased disruption and direct damage to transportation systems, buildings, and real estate from more flooding and wildfires; possibly even larger indirect costs due to more rapid depreciation.
  • Many roads will likely to be impacted by more frequent storm events, flooding and wildfires, impairing the movement of people during emergencies.

Energy Systems

  • Electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) hydro system is likely to be constrained in summer months because of reduced snowpack and stream flows just as electrical demand rises due to increased need for air conditioning in the summer and increases in population.
  • Power lines are likely to face increased stress due to rising fires and temperatures.

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The science panel made the following recommendations to prepare aquatic and terrestrial systems for climate change by increasing resilience and resistance:

Aquatic Systems

  • Restoration and maintenance of stream complexity and connectivity will improve spawning habitat and allow for movement to new areas as other areas become too warm.
  • Restoration and maintenance of critical landscapes such as high elevation riparian areas, floodplains, tributary junctions, north-facing streams, and stream reaches with gravels and topographic complexity.
  • Management of fisheries to protect genetic and life history diversity of native species.

Terrestrial Systems

  • Protection and restoration of ecosystem structure, function and genetic diversity to allow organisms to withstand and adapt to climate stressors.
  • The use of strategic fire should be used to reduce the likelihood of severe fire, as should replanting with a diverse array of native species, and ecologically appropriate fuels reduction efforts.
  • Remaining intact habitats should be protected, including old growth, roadless areas and corridor connections for wildlife migration. Protected areas should be expanded longitudinally and latitudinally in order to allow species to shift their ranges.
  • Land and stream reaches that provide critical support for ecosystem services should be identified, protected and restored. Ecosystem services are benefits that people gain from functioning ecosystems, including clean water, decomposition of waste and toxins, timber harvest, recreational opportunities, etc.
  • Translocations may be necessary when the suitable climate changes too quickly for species to adjust their ranges, or when habitat fragementation prevents their movement.

Both Aquatic and Terrestrial Systems

  • Reducing existing stressors, such as habitat fragmentation, erosion from resource extraction and roads, air and water pollution and contamination, the loss of keystone species, introduction of invasive species, and conversion of forests, riparian areas and floodplains to urban and suburban development, would result in substantial benefits to both aquatic and terrestrial species and systems.
  • Redirect responsibility for emergency services so that private parties that wish to locate in these high risk areas pay for those services, while also providing funding and tools to help low income and vulnerable populations cover these costs.
  • Management should shift to encompass climate-induced changes and contribute to the landscape’s ability to buffer greater seasonal, annual, and decadal variability in temperature and precipitation as well as more severe storm events.

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The policy panel made the following recommendations to prepare human, built, and economic systems for climate change:

Manufacturing, Retail and Service Sectors

  • Expand the use of on-site renewable energy systems to provide protection against blackouts and provide stability to energy prices.
  • Significantly expand water conservation and efficiency programs and policies in manufacturing and other urban and suburban settings.
  • Explore ways to expand the tourism season to include spring and winter as summer seasons become hotter.
  • Incorporate climate change preparation into all current and future public and private plans and policies.
  • Reorient management plans and policies to focus on the ‘Future Range of Climate Variability' rather than the long-held approach of management based on historic patterns.
  • Set goals and priorities appropriate for projected future conditions, with alternative plans, goals, and priorities in place for seamless adjustments to changing conditions.
  • Utilize ‘scenario planning’ methods to identify and plan for climate futures.
  • Expand planning and decision making to at least the Basin scale rather than planning at the forest, county, city or project levels in isolation of other regions or interests.
  • Evaluate how policies, programs and projects may affect climate preparation efforts in other sectors or regions of the Basin and constantly identify ways for one activity or project to provide co-benefits for others.
  • Expand participation on planning and decision-making teams to include people representing different stakeholder groups or other regions of the Basin that are likely to be affected by climate change.
  • Improve and reorient data gathering and monitoring systems to generate timely information on the speed, trajectory, and consequences of climate change.
  • Increase public understanding of the likely consequences of climate change and preparation options as well as efficacy of management action.

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Global temperatures are rising in large part due to human activities. No matter how fast human-induced greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced, over the coming decades climate change is likely to significantly stress and transform natural systems in the Rogue Basin. These changes will produce considerable modifications in the way the local economy functions, in infrastructure and buildings, in human health, and in the quality of life of the people who live in and enjoy the Rogue River Basin. Numerous initiatives are already underway within the Rogue Basin that can help people prepare for these effects. Upgrading existing and proactively launching the additional climate preparation steps described in this report in an integrated and co-beneficial manner can build resistance and resilience to climate change and help people and communities adapt and thrive in the future.

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Geos Institute