Speed Our Response
Prudent steps taken now to protect the Gulf Coast's land and water resources will pay big dividends in the future. The Gulf Coast's natural resources contribute over $160 billion a year to the region's economy. We must act now to protect our valuable heritage. Gulf Coast residents, planners, land managers, and policymakers can become better prepared to deal with the impacts of climate change.
Climate change is a long-term challenge - much like education, child rearing, business investments or social security. Reducing our emissions of heat-trapping gases is the most important action businesses, residents as well as federal, state and local governments can take now in order to set us onto a more sustainable, safer path with regard to future climate change. The climate benefits of these reductions, however, will not be seen immediately. Because greenhouse gases already emitted in past years and decades will remain in the atmosphere for decades or even centuries, some measure of climate change will be happening over the next 20-50 years. It is therefore sensible for us to begin to develop strategies on how we should adapt our infrastructure and the management of our natural resources to changing conditions such as we understand them today.
Water Resource Management
Given what we know about likely climate change impacts in the region, the greatest emphasis must be placed on increasing water management flexibility. The key is increasing our ability to cope with year-to-year and seasonal water variability and weather extremes as they occur. Hence, water districts could begin now—without committing to any particular future climate scenario—to review their policies, rules, and decision-making procedures and to identify and improve those that restrict their flexibility and adaptive capacity.
Water planners should also identify increasing water demands that are solely driven by population growth and greater water demands from water uses such as agriculture, urban areas, and industries. Texas, for example, mandated such an assessment in 1997 and changed water planning from a statewide to a regional activity. Districts in Florida also manage their water resources within watershed boundaries. This regionalization allows districts to manage water-cycle changes at the appropriate scale.
Agriculture and Forestry
Farmers are already accustomed to making season-to-season adjustments in their farming operations depending on mid-range forecast of seasonal weather patterns. They may be able to respond to changes in long-term environmental conditions by choosing more favorable crops, cultivars, and cropping and irrigation systems. In addition, farmers need to become aware of how their land-use practices contribute to carbon dioxide emissions as well as larger regional issues of water quantity and quality, which are likely to be exacerbated by global warming.
Foresters can also adjust species, soil fertility, spacing, rotation lengths, and fire management to accommodate some of the expected consequences of climate change.
Sea-level rise is already occurring and is virtually certain to accelerate in a warmer world—and Louisiana, Florida, and Texas are particularly vulnerable. Basic management approaches include structural (engineering) measures—both “soft” approaches such as beach replenishment and “hard” approaches such as erecting seawalls and bulkheads—to hold back the sea. Other management approaches include non-structural measures such as planning, zoning, land purchases, and conservation easements. These costs differ in cost and environmental impact. Planners can, for example, identify shoreline uses more compatible with rising seas and a moving shoreline.
Coastal communities will also have to consider strategies to restore degraded barrier islands and coastal wetlands. By allowing for the natural reshaping of barrier islands by storms and the landward migration of coastal wetlands, as seas rise important ecological functions of these wetlands and islands are maintained. Restoring water and sediment supplies from upstream areas can also reduce stress on existing coastal wetlands.
Land and Biodiversity Conservation
Species currently protected within park or conservation land boundaries may migrate out of these areas as the climate changes, and thus lose the protection that once ensured their survival. Constructing buffer zones, using the tools of conservation easements and migration corridors, may help these species and habitats to adapt. Large-scale restoration plans, such as Louisiana's Coast 2050 and the South Florida Everglades restoration plans, should include an assessment of the implications of climate change and sea-level rise. In general, restoring habitats such as the Everglades is an important endeavor, because healthy, fully functioning ecosystems are better able to withstand and adapt to the likely changes global warming will bring.
Other Climatic Hazards
In many ways, the Gulf Coast is more prepared for dealing with too much water than with too little. Regional disaster-management efforts are well honed for floods and storms, but less so for droughts. States would be well advised to review and enhance their preparedness for disasters related to heat waves, extended droughts, and wildfires. Climate change-conscious hazard management should also include a review of insurance coverage in various segments of the population (such as floodplain residents, and farmers) and in valuable sectors of the economy (such as agriculture, tourism, and foresty).
"Best Practices" in Land and Resource Use
Implementing "best practices" can minimize the ecologically harmful side effects of some types of land and resource use while retaining the economic benefits they provide to the region. For example, progressive zoning initiatives that integrate different land uses over a smaller area can protect natural resources and open space from urban sprawl. Best practices can also improve the management of agricultural and aquatic ecosystems to achieve goals such as water conservation and reduced farm runoff. Furthermore, critical evaluation should be given to the role of federal and state subsidies that promote the development and reclamation of certain ecosystems that are particularly vulnerable to climate change, such as coastal marshes, flood plains, and wetlands.
Education about Ecology and Global Warming
Finally, we need to raise awareness and understanding of global climate change in the Gulf Coast region. This can begin by educating people of all ages about the cultural and ecological heritage at stake; about the fundamentals of ecology and climate, and what drives them to change; and about the viable and cost-effective solutions currently at hand.
Mangrove restoration - South Florida Water Management District
Urban Sprawl - South Florida Water Management District
Farmer and cotton - USDA ARS Photo, B. Nichols.
Corups Christi beach - Texas General Land Office, Coastal Projects Division.
Cypress-tupelo swamp - USGS, D. Demcheck.
Drought conditions - South Florida Water Management District
Farmers discussing "best-pratices" - USDA NRCS, Bob Nichols.
Teacher and Students - USDA NRCS, K. Hammond.