Welcome to “What’s Up With Water”, your essential water news in the world of Circle of Blue. I am Eileen Wray-McCann.
At the United Nations climate conference last week, Colombian officials said they would declare 30 percent of the country as protected land by next year. This deadline is eight years earlier than the original 2030 target. EuroNews reports that biodiversity advocates are praising the move. Climate change threatens freshwater systems in Colombia, where cloud forests provide 70 percent of the country’s drinking water. Cloud forests are tropical forests characterized by frequent cloud cover at low altitudes. They are essential for recycling moisture from the earth to the air and vice versa. Tom Stevens, of the nonprofit Fauna & Flora International, said preserving these forests sequesters carbon while protecting the supply of drinking water and hydropower.
In the United States, Google and a city in Oregon in which it operates are working to keep Google’s water use out of the public eye. Google uses water for its data centers, and the town of The Dalles has filed a complaint in an attempt to keep information on it secret. The Oregonian newspaper requested the water use data ahead of city council votes on a $ 28 million water deal with Google to expand its data center operations. The tech giant is considering two new server farms in the northern Oregon city, located along the Columbia River. Google officials say their data centers need more water to cool the equipment, but neither the city nor Google will say exactly how much more. Google claims the data on water use is a trade secret. The city’s lawsuit seeks to overturn a previous ruling that made Google’s water use available as a public record.
This week, Circle of Blue reports on how climate change is affecting trout streams across the United States.
The air is rich with the scent of wild water as David McCool lands his boat on the Au Sable River in northern Michigan. The sounds of the morning belong to the birds and the clear and bright ripples. The river invites with powerful beauty, with the thrill of life. Henry Ford and John Rockefeller fished Au Sable, and Ernest Hemingway called the place “good things for testing.”
McCool has fished Au Sable more times than he can count. He is a master fisherman who has been handling his rod for 20 years, but he never tires of adventure. The crystal-clear waters of the Au Sable course through 138 miles of northern Michigan forest. The river is one of the most famous places in the country to throw a fly. She is so revered as a trout fishery that in 1959 a group of fishermen from Au Sable formed Trout Unlimited, which is now the country’s first defense organization to protect the cold waterways of Michigan and the country.
Some 60 years later, however, Au Sable is ill. A slow emergency is brewing in the calm, warming waters. They are feeling the effects of Michigan’s unusually warm winter temperatures, followed by a historic drought and one of the hottest summers on record. Said McCool âAu Sable guides, we are on the front line. Just a small change in temperature can have a huge impact on this resource. We have to make sure that we always take care of it, because things change in our environment. “
From an ecological point of view, fish are the canary of the coal mine. Trout is an indicator species in Au Sable, which means that its well-being reflects its ecosystem. Randy Claramunt is a biologist in the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He told Circle of Blue: âA healthy trout indicates that the whole system is healthy. Likewise, populations in poor health are a wake-up call: the poor water quality conditions that make trout suffer are probably also a stress for invertebrates and other biota.
It’s a story repeating itself across the country. In the Klamath River in California, spawning salmon are weakened by warm water and low oxygen levels, and their carcasses pile up and rot. In Montana this summer, drought reduced once raging trout streams to a net. In the Columbia River, rainbow trout are at their lowest. As fishermen monitor the damage, they call for protecting these environments from further damage.
In Au Sable, flooding is also a stressor. In recent years, greater temperature variations have been observed in the spring, when the snowpack begins to melt. The snowpack feeds the river, so this instability intensifies the flooding, which can wash away trout eggs and club a generation of young fish that are not yet good swimmers. Claramunt said: âIf it happens once, it’s okay; the following year somehow compensates. But after a few years, if it happens again and again, will the population recover?
Other bodies of water show the devastation these stressors threaten. In the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, Canada, a predatory warm-water fish species known as the striped bass intrudes into warming waters and decimates the population of cold-water salmon. In the Great Lakes, consistently high temperatures allowed the colonization of invasive zebra mussels, where they altered the ecosystem’s food chain and nutrient flow beyond repair. Claramunt is concerned that a sustained decline in the trout population may have equally significant effects in Au Sable. He described it as a potential âexit rampâ that could change the stream community, perhaps irrevocably.
The decline of river ecosystems intensifies the anxiety that young fishermen feel for their planet. At 14, Landen Finkle worries about the state of the river near his home in Traverse City, Michigan. He is particularly concerned about the loss of biodiversity. Like a majority of his generation, climate and environmental issues weigh heavily on him. Finkle is fascinated by the ecology of freshwater and hopes to one day guide fishing expeditions. But the increasing signs of the river’s decline sometimes make him feel helpless and fearful for the future of this vital source of connection and fulfillment.
Across the country, these anxieties are gradually translating into political momentum. Recreational fishermen are a politically conservative population, and the issue has started to change minds about climate change. Longtime writer and sportsman Todd Tanner is the chairman of the nonprofit climate education group Conservation Hawks, run for and by hunters and anglers. Tanner founded the group after a story he wrote about climate change was dismissed by an outdoor magazine whose editor called the problem a “communist conspiracy.”
Tanner says the industry and its media have come a long way since then. There are still hunters and anglers who deny the scientific consensus that climate change is caused by human behavior. But for many others, seeing the effects firsthand has changed their opinion on the matter. As Tanner put it, âIt becomes so obvious that they don’t really have a choice, they just have to accept it. Over the past decade, popular member organizations like Trout Unlimited have started to explicitly integrate climate change into their advocacy and messaging. Tanner adds: âThe big question in my mind is not whether athletes will eventually understand what is going on and engage in it; they go. The big question in my mind is whether this will happen in time to make a difference. “
The good news is that just as stress on river ecosystems builds up, it can also be alleviated. The root cause of the problem is global climate change, which can only be resolved by rapidly reducing carbon emissions. But in the meantime, mitigation techniques can make the difference between a fish population persisting or succumbing to environmental pressures.
The simplest solution is to limit overfishing. There is a gentleman’s agreement between the fly fishing guides on the Au Sable not to make any expeditions when the water temperature is above 68 degrees, when even catch and release fishing can kill a fish. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources has posted signs along the river for this purpose, encouraging people to refrain from fishing under these conditions.
David McCool, the master fisherman, hopes state officials will go further and start enforcing regulations. The Department of Natural Resources told Circle of Blue it has taken a slow approach. Michigan Fisheries Chief Jim Dexter said the department is studying the effect of regulations in other states. Authorities could temporarily suspend fishing in certain sections of the stream, but this option has rarely been used in Michigan.
Other mitigation methods include simple conservation tactics that can make all the difference in building fish resilience. Many of these strategies were developed by Indigenous communities who have used them for centuries. For example, restoring trees along deforested banks can shade the ecosystem and cool the river in extreme heat. The removal of dams and other river barriers allows fish to follow their instinctive migrations.
As McCool looks back on this year’s tough season, he sees a world that has changed dramatically since he began his career as a fly fisherman. It’s a fifty pound problem on a four pound line, but it knows the value of persistence and making the most of the tools you have. He said, âWe look and see, and take action. It’s a very delicate environment and you have to take care of it.