Climate change and river ecosystems: Protection and adaptation options

M.A. Palmer, D.P. Lettenmaier, LeRoy POFF, S.L. Postel, B.D. Richter, R. Warner

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

326 Citations (Scopus)


Rivers provide a special suite of goods and services valued highly by the public that are inextricably linked to their flow dynamics and the interaction of flow with the landscape. Yet most rivers are within watersheds that are stressed to some extent by human activities including development, dams, or extractive uses. Climate change will add to and magnify risks that are already present through its potential to alter rainfall, temperature, runoff patterns, and to disrupt biological communities and sever ecological linkages. We provide an overview of the predicted impacts based on published studies to date, discuss both reactive and proactive management responses, and outline six categories of management actions that will contribute substantially to the protection of valuable river assets. To be effective, management must be place-based focusing on local watershed scales that are most relevant to management scales. The first priority should be enhancing environmental monitoring of changes and river responses coupled with the development of local scenario-building exercises that take land use and water use into account. Protection of a greater number of rivers and riparian corridors is essential, as is conjunctive groundwater/surface water management. This will require collaborations among multiple partners in the respective river basins and wise land use planning to minimize additional development in watersheds with valued rivers. Ensuring environmental flows by purchasing or leasing water rights and/or altering reservoir release patterns will be needed for many rivers. Implementing restoration projects proactively can be used to protect existing resources so that expensive reactive restoration to repair damage associated with a changing climate is minimized. Special attention should be given to diversifying and replicating habitats of special importance and to monitoring populations at high risk or of special value so that management interventions can occur if the risks to habitats or species increase significantly over time
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1053-1068
Number of pages16
JournalEnvironmental Management
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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