The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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How to Deal with Climate Change on the Connecticut River and Beyond

In the brave new world of unsettled climate, one key danger for professionals who operate the infrastructure of major water resources such as the Connecticut River is that traditional water-management rules are becoming more obsolete than the old rules for regulating greenhouse emissions. That uncertainty makes water sources, including the Connecticut, much more at risk from floods and droughts. One answer to this dramatic problem is the research of environmental engineer Casey Brown, who is using the Connecticut as a 407-mile laboratory to develop sophisticated computer simulation models, which will provide water resource managers everywhere with brand new guidelines for controlling river basins in lieu of climate change.

Dr. Brown, from the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is involved in three dovetailing research projects, including a prestigious new $419,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER program, in which his job is to develop revolutionary simulation models for the Connecticut.

New England’s longest river contains a drainage basin of 11,250 miles, an infrastructure of some 4,000 dams used for everything from hydropower to flood control, and the drinking reservoirs for Boston, Springfield, Hartford, and other major cities.  It is also the home to an incredible array of ecosystems and threatened species. But, as far-reaching as Brown’s work on the Connecticut could prove, his simulations and guidelines would then represent an innovative new approach to water resource management that can be used all over a world whose climate is shifting radically.

“The crux of the issue is that the traditional approach in water resources management is based on the assumption of a stationary climate,” explains Brown. “Essentially, the idea was that we can calculate the statistics of the past – the temperature, rainfall, snow accumulation, stream flow – and we can then design our future management of the water resource based on that.”

In that context, the management rules for the infrastructure of the Connecticut River, which one environmental engineer says is “probably the most highly dammed river in America,” haven’t changed fundamentally since the 1950s. But climate change has thrown that traditional approach into chaos. The records of the past no longer predict the reality of the future. “The climate has become what we call ‘non-stationary,’ says Brown. “The future could become very different than the past.”

To address this problem, Brown and other environmental engineers are engaged in several major projects dealing with managing the Connecticut River, the majestic river that flows southward from its source in the Connecticut Lakes of northern New Hampshire, carves out the border between Vermont and New Hampshire, surges through western Massachusetts and central Connecticut, and empties into the Long Island Sound at Old Saybrook and Old Lyme in southern Connecticut.

Brown’s research for all three projects aims at new strategies of water management that will be more robust and effective in a wide range of possible futures. “Instead of saying, ‘Just tell us what the future climate will be, and we’ll adapt our old style management to that future,’” he notes, “we’re saying, ‘Forget it, we need to come up with a new style of water management.’”

The way Brown is doing that is developing computer models capable of using current local conditions – such as snow pack, soil moisture, rain, air temperatures – to forecast stream flows for the upcoming season. In addition to that, his models reflect non-local effects on local hydrology from climate patterns such as the North Atlantic Oscillation and the Pacific Ocean’s El Niño/La Niña effect.

“Maybe we can’t yet predict much about the long-term future of a region such as New England,” Brown says, “but for the short-term future, maybe we can. So we’re taking a seasonal approach to managing the water resource. Water management has not tested that as an adaptation to climate change. We are developing computer models capable of predicting the short-term climate and hydrological conditions for a coming season so that water resource managers can change the old rules to fit the new conditions.”

Brown just received a major boost for his research with the news of his NSF grant for a project entitled "Robust Management of Climate Uncertainty for Ecohydrological Sustainability.” He is also part of a larger collaborative project studying the impact of climate change on the operational procedures of the Connecticut River infrastructure, a project funded by the Nature Conservancy, in collaboration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Geological Survey. Another project, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will be working with the people who operate the infrastructure of the Connecticut basin to come up with ways to improve how climate information is presented so they can benefit much more effectively from it.

“The NOAA funding will also allow us to build up this community of water managers so we can communicate our results to them and apply our research immediately,” says Brown.

Brown observes that the Connecticut River basin is the ideal laboratory for developing these computer simulations, which will improve the effectiveness of water resource management for the Connecticut and beyond. It has all the issues of most major river systems, including flood risk, water use, and threatened species, so this model can be used all over the world. (January 2011)