Four Hydrology Best Practices for Climate Change

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Sean Capstick

Sean Capstick Member Name

Principal and Senior Climate Change Specialist

Janya Kelly Member Name

Climate Change & Air Quality Specialist

Preparing for climate change is like being the coach of a sports team, getting ready for a big game. You’ve reviewed game reels of the opposing team, particularly analyzing the moves of their star players. You’re convinced that your analysis of past games will help your players predict and counter the moves of their opponents in the upcoming contest. But when the opposing team takes the field and you find their star players have been traded away, you’ve no idea what to expect from the replacement players facing your team.

It’s like that with climate change. Fast-changing realities are upending many of the established expectations around water management. What worked before, based on past realities, is increasingly unable to meet the needs of the future. To meet these needs, organizations need to evolve what has worked before to maximize water management.

These four best practices stand out as ways to help organizations have the right amount of water, at the right times, to thrive in the uncertain times ahead.

1. Dynamic modelling replaces past-performance modelling

Past-performance modelling assumes conditions within a system will stay the same, but climate can change how water flows through a system, creating the need for a dynamic approach.  For example, consider a water reservoir used for power generation.

Previously, the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) might have allowed the water level to drop during the winter, in anticipation of rapid refilling by spring snowmelt. Having a high-water level in spring would give the facility enough water to meet power demand during low-flow months in the summer.

But with climate change, there is more variability in weather, and in water availability. Applying these SOPs without consideration of actual conditions may not give the expected results.  While the operator might have previously been inclined to just spill excess water over the dam in times of plenty, there are now increased chances that along with more and longer wet periods during the year, there will be more and longer dry periods where the excess water could be helpful.

This means that even if the overall yearly amount of precipitation does not change much, there can still be shortages of water, even in parts of the globe where total precipitation is plentiful. Changing patterns of how and when precipitation occurs can create unexpected changes in seasonal water levels that did not require much management before.

This calls for updates to SOPs, to allow for better use of existing infrastructure – the dam itself – and better planning of capital expenditures, possibly to increase the height of the dam and volume of the reservoir. Planning cannot be based as much on records from the past but must be continually revised based on changing realities and updated projections of future conditions. This means that organizations must improve their ability to incorporate available future climate projections into their current SOPs and capital investment strategies.

In our sports team analogy, this is like selecting players that have shown their ability to adapt quickly to counter the playing style of any opposing team.

2. Resiliency is more than capital investment

Despite the advances in computer-based climate change models, there remain uncertainties in climate projections used to inform SOPs and capital investment strategies. These uncertainties increase with the decades-long lifespan of water infrastructure, whether it is for hydroelectricity generation, water supply, flood control or irrigation. What the climate projections seem to agree on is changing precipitation patterns under future climate conditions. What was once a size of storm that would come along one year in twenty on average, may now be showing up an average of once a decade.

Responding to changing climate and its associated uncertainty often requires capital investment. However, there are actions organizations can take to assess the amount and timing of capital investment by planning for resiliency.

Resiliency planning is rooted in the use of known risk management approaches adapted to incorporate available climate change information and build on existing risk communication frameworks. The planning allows organizations to find where climate vulnerabilities exist and make informed decisions on when and how they should be addressed. Available resources can be maximized as a first response to climate change, rather than requiring new infrastructure or SOPs.

For example, it may be better to pump water between existing reservoirs to manage excess water, rather than invest in a new reservoir. A new reservoir may be needed once the volume of water flowing through the system crosses a threshold, but that threshold may not be crossed for another decade or more. Planning can also take advantage of the surrounding environment. For example, it is better to plan systems with the capacity to recover more quickly by taking advantage of nature-based solutions.

While capital investment ultimately can address concerns around climate change and uncertainty, planning for resiliency can address the concerns of operators, stakeholders, investors and surrounding communities, allowing for complete solutions driven by smart investment.

This is much like a sports team coach who stays well-informed on trends in the way the sport is played, so that the team can be trained in using – and countering – those new ways of playing.

3. Planning that meets the needs of a wide range of stakeholders

Many water infrastructure projects were developed with one main purpose in mind. For example, in the Canadian province of Ontario, many rivers were dammed in the early 1900s, mainly for power generation. Over the years, city dwellers looking for relaxation built vacation properties along the shores of the reservoirs, complete with docks, boathouses – and the expectation that the water levels would be kept at a reasonably constant level.

With climate change, it is more difficult for the operators of the dams to juggle the expectations of property owners, the need to reduce the potential for downstream flooding, and the need to meet hourly and daily fluctuations in power demand. In fact, climate change is already showing up in more frequent and intense high-water periods and low-water periods. The result is sometimes complaints from property owners, furious that their boathouse was flooded, or that their landscaping was ruined by high water.

Environmental groups may be equally frustrated if a marsh is flooded by high water in the reservoir to protect downstream cottagers. Recreational white-water kayakers and canoeists may add their demands that the river downstream from the dam be kept at a high enough level for their sport. Anglers may also want the water kept high enough to allow fish to thrive year-round.

Needs such as these must be prioritized so that the most important are met first. This comes down to a ‘stewardship’ model, where water is a resource that belongs to all. Organizations managing water infrastructure do that work on behalf of all stakeholders.

Many sports coaches know this feeling of conflicting demands. Some players will push for more time on the field and less on the bench, the team’s fans may demand a more aggressive style of play, and there is also the relentless flow of what-they-should-have-done analysis after the game. Knowing which advice to heed is a key management skill in sports, as well as water management.

4. Communication – both ways – is key to success

When there are conflicting demands over the water resource, communication is key in developing a basin-wide SOP for Water Stewardship. This is a key concept for the Water Stewardship program — that individual operations cannot focus just on their own property, as water does not care about property lines. This matters because it’s getting increasingly difficult to carry out projects of any size without a “social license to operate” that includes support — or at least acceptance – from the people who will be impacted by the project.

Keeping plans current with changing climate realities must be incorporated and communicated in this planning. For example, on a reservoir whose primary purpose is power generation, property owners should be fully informed that the water level will be optimized for meeting power load. On some water bodies, this means that the level rises and falls noticeably. Property owners should not expect the lake level to be kept where they want it to be, although reservoir operators should take care that this variability minimizes the potential for damage to property.

All stakeholders should also be kept aware of how climate change will impact operations – for example, possibly with a need to keep water levels above the dam higher and water flow below it lower than some stakeholder groups might like. Communication such as this is an opportunity to improve relations with all stakeholders – property owners, businesses catering to the boating and angling population, environmental groups, and others. It is important to listen as well as speak, to understand the concerns of stakeholders, so that as many as possible of those needs can be met.

Organizations that reduce their reliance on historic data and evolve to embrace the idea of dynamic planning are like a sports team that expects the unexpected – such as changes to the opposing lineup – with aplomb. They’re more able to meet the future effectively, despite the uncertainty.

About the Authors

Sean Capstick

Sean Capstick Member Name

Principal and Senior Climate Change Specialist

Janya Kelly Member Name

Climate Change & Air Quality Specialist

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