National Estuary Program

Helping Make Our Estuaries “Climate-Ready”

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By Mellissa Brosius EPA works with coastal managers to assess climate change vulnerabilities, develop and implement adaptation strategies, and engage and educate stakeholders

By Mellissa Brosius
EPA works with coastal managers to assess climate change vulnerabilities, develop and implement adaptation strategies, and engage and educate stakeholders

By Ashley Brosius

For as far back as I can remember, my family has vacationed at our beach house in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The house sits just one block from the beach and abuts the channel, so we have gorgeous views on all sides of the wraparound porch.

As I grew up, my personal interests in the natural environment led me to my professional pursuits in environmental protection. Working with the EPA Climate Ready Estuaries program continues to drive home the need to adapt to our changing climate, such as adjusting to rising water levels. Taking action is especially important in low lying coastal communities like the one that includes my family beach home. My mother often speaks of leaving the house to me some day, but I wonder if it will still be standing in 15-20 years.

Yet, my work with Climate Ready Estuaries has been encouraging. Our team works with the National Estuary Program and coastal managers to figure out where climate change could cause problems, create plans to handle them, and educate everyone affected. National Estuary Program staff are already out there working with coastal communities so they can better adapt and become more resilient to the myriad of potential impacts of climate change. For example, the work being done by the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program is helping to raise awareness of regional climate impacts. The San Juan Bay Estuary Program is working to limit climate impacts by estimating vulnerabilities. There are also many regional and city-specific adaptation efforts underway, like the Southeast Florida regional climate change compact and New York City’s adaptation plan.

But, most encouraging of all are the efforts underway to make progress on the White House Climate Action Plan. These local projects will receive guidance and resources from programs like the one I work on every day. I know the likelihood is slim that our family vacation home will still be standing 250 years from now. At least I know that our country is taking steps to preserve the broader community and make it more resilient for the tough road ahead.

This year, go make some memories of your own by celebrating the 25th anniversary of National Estuaries Day on September 28, 2013!

About the author: Ashley Brosius is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education participant working in EPA’s office of water in the Climate Ready Estuaries program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Around the Water Cooler: Climate Ready Estuaries

To continue the Agency’s efforts to expand the conversation on climate change, we are highlighting EPA climate change research with Science Matters articles. This week’s “Around the Water Cooler” features research to support climate ready estuaries.

Climate Ready Estuaries Program
EPA researchers assess coastal habitats to identify vulnerabilities and help communities prepare.

Estuaries serve as the connections between the ocean and freshwater rivers and streams.

Estuaries are partially enclosed water bodies that serve as the connections between the ocean and freshwater rivers and streams. Both their water and surrounding soils are nutrient-rich, providing homes for some of the most biologically productive and diverse habitats in the world. These habitats are critical places for many species of fish to reproduce, for birds to find refuge and “refuel” during migration, and for people to swim and boat. Many also serve as sources of drinking water.

Estuaries are directly linked to environmental quality, human well-being, and national prosperity. Estuarine marshes help maintain water quality by filtering surface water runoff and retaining excess nutrients, pollutants and sediments. They decrease the impacts of coastal flooding by absorbing stormwater, preventing the inundation of surrounding communities. Estuarine habitats also serve as nurseries for commercially important fish and shellfish.

Estuaries are also highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

In the coming decades, estuaries will be threatened by rising sea levels, warming temperatures, and increasingly powerful storms. EPA researchers are working with the National Estuaries Programs (NEPs) and coastal managers to learn more about the risks estuaries face due to a changing climate, and are leading efforts to help coastal managers and others develop the capabilities (“adaptation strategies”) to protect them from the impacts of global climate change.

One vulnerable habitat that researchers have studied is the San Francisco Bay estuary, where EPA scientists collaborated with colleagues from the San Francisco Bay Estuary Partnership, and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission to assess the ecological vulnerability of coastal systems in the Bay area.

“We looked at key processes that are critical to maintaining salt marsh and mudflat ecosystems,” explains EPA scientist Jordan West. “We asked: how are different physical and biological variables involved in processes such as sediment retention being impacted by climate change, and how do we separate all of these pieces and identify the greatest sensitivities? After we had done that, we could then look at what options might be available to communities for managing these problems.”

San Francisco Bay

The project team convened a group of local experts to look at the different relationships between plants, animals, and physical processes in the San Francisco Bay estuary to determine which parts are currently the most sensitive and thus most likely to be impacted by climate change. Once they were able to identify sensitivities in the estuary, they developed adaptation strategies that the surrounding community could use to better manage risks and increase resiliency.

For example, salt marshes are sensitive to the effects that climate change will have on freshwater flows (the freshwater flowing into them from streams and rivers), as these flows affect salinity, which in turn, affects the growth of marsh plants. Thus one recommendation is to manage reservoirs for steady, low-volume releases during the growing season, to regulate salinity and favor marsh plant productivity. Since marshes are also sensitive to erosion during increasingly-intense storms, additional actions to consider are building berms or restoring oyster reefs as protective barriers against wave energy.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the severity and timing of the effects of climate change, communities must develop strategies that account for a variety of potential circumstances.

“It’s essentially planning for many potential outcomes and being prepared to act on each one,” says West. “You have to look at a range of plausible scenarios. We use many different climate models that make different assumptions, which provides us with a variety of possible future scenarios. This lets us look for options that work across a range of outcomes. Alternatively, communities can prepare an assortment of options so that they have flexibility in their response based on what occurs in the future.”

The strategies developed by EPA researchers and their partners are providing decision makers in San Francisco and elsewhere with the information they need to develop adaptation strategies and make decisions based on sound science. Their findings, while site-specific, show that early planning could help vulnerable communities escape, or at least mitigate, some of the devastating impacts of climate change on estuaries around the country.

Learn More

Estuaries and Coastal Wetlands

Climate Ready Estuaries (website)

Climate Ready Estuaries 2012 Progress Report (pdf)

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the National Estuary Program, Up Close & Personal

Charlotte Harbor National Estuary program partners tour Matlacha and Pine Islands, just a few miles west of Fort Myers, Florida.

By Nancy Stoner

Last year not only marked the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, but also the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the National Estuary Program, an EPA place-based program to protect and restore the water quality and ecological integrity of estuaries of national significance. Although there have been challenges along the way, we have made significant progress in making our waters fishable and swimmable. The collaborative, partnership-driven—and non-regulatory—efforts at the 28 National Estuary Program sites across the country have had a special role in implementing the Clean Water Act.

For decades, even before the enactment of the Clean Water Act, Americans have made great strides in protecting the environment and clean water because of governments, groups and individuals working together.  The National Estuary Programs have been incredible models of this approach as they have established trust at the local level by promoting a close working relationship among a wide range of partners, and the programs are often recognized as an unbiased broker to achieve commonsense conservation goals.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of this remarkable work in person through my time here at EPA through a number of visits to National Estuary Program sites, and got a firsthand look at all the great things that are happening at the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary in Florida last December.

I accompanied state and local officials on a boat tour around the harbor’s Matlacha and Pine Islands, just a few miles west of Fort Myers. Charlotte Harbor is a popular destination for bird and wildlife watching, and now I understand why—we saw bald eagles, osprey, manatees, egrets, herons and several species of pelicans. I was equally impressed with the wide variety of programs our partners have underway, which include efforts to preserve and protect mangroves, aquatic preserves, sea grasses and wetlands.

Most of these programs are on track to achieve their goals, all while population and development in the watershed are on the rise, a sign that the protecting the environment and growing the economy can compliment one another. Some challenges still remain in the Charlotte Harbor area— like stormwater discharges, nutrient pollution and pathogens affecting water quality—but the strength of the partnerships I witnessed last month made me confident that these issues can be addressed collaboratively and with sustainable outcomes.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Challenges and Opportunities in San Juan Bay

By Nancy Stoner

Last week, I visited the San Juan Bay National Estuary Program office in Puerto Rico and took a tour of the estuary with the program’s director, Dr. Javier Laureano. San Juan Bay was the first tropical island estuary to become part of the National Estuary Program and, it contains coral communities, seagrass beds and mangrove forests – all habitats designated critical areas. The San Juan Bay program also faces some significant environmental challenges, but Dr. Laureano and his team are making tremendous progress through their partnerships with commonwealth and municipal officials, the local water and wastewater utilities, and dedicated community groups.
We started the day with a boat tour of the waterways that connect to San Juan Bay. It’s an oasis in the Puerto Rico’s largest urban center with almost no development and lots of wildlife, but with significant contamination issues from sewage and stormwater. The National Estuary Program has requested $1.2 million from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to track all of the sources of untreated sewage into the waterway. We also saw a number of new eco-tourism businesses that the National Estuary Program has helped get off the ground.

A hallmark of this program is its focus on developing economic opportunities for many of the communities located within the National Estuary Program study area because of the poverty they face. In this case, many of the local neighborhoods lack sewage treatment and have clogged stormwater drains as well, so the storms flood the streets, homes and even schools with sewage-laden water.

The trash in the Martin Pena Channel that flows into San Juan Bay and is so deep that you can walk across the former stream at many points. It is a health hazard that EPA is working in partnership with many, including effective community leaders, to address, but it’s a big job and presents a significant financial challenge for this impoverished community.

I also joined EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck and Assistant Administrator Craig Hooks for a meeting and walking tour with representatives of community groups, a visit to a community garden where university students tutor children in the neighborhood and a trip to eroded coastal areas where the National Estuary Program is planting mangrove trees to stabilize and protect the coastline. These projects are a few examples of the great work underway to restore and protect one of the country’s most unique ecosystems in the United States.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.