Thursday, March 28, 2013

Restoring climatized ecosystem services for the market: Part 1

In the foothills of the Cascades in western Oregon, a landowner contracts with a local firm that will restore a stream that runs through her property. Among other things, they'll plant trees to shade the stream during those cloudless Oregon summer days and the restoration company will throw some logs in there to create habitat for salmon and other creatures. The trees might take 20 years to grow to the point where they're really shading the stream, but the logs will work more quickly. The landowner restores the stream with the help of payments from a local water utility that is under state and federal pressure to mitigate for the impact its effluent has on stream temperature, and consequently the salmon that like the water cool.

Salmon are a big deal in Oregon
All the while, snowmelt from the Cascades is becoming more erratic and there's less of it, both of which spell trouble for the salmon. Because the snow has melted earlier in spring, the fall low stream flows are inching their way closer to the high temperatures of summer. The trees might cool things down a bit, but they won't be very tall for several more years. The trees may also soak up carbon dioxide and mitigate climate change in the first place, but what are 600 stems going to do for this particular watershed? These ecosystem services are what I call climatized. In short, this one attempt - on the part of a landowner and regulators - to deal with a local water temperature issue is confounded by the regionalized effects of climate change at the same time that the effort has the possibility to be part of a global solution.

How states and land managers can enhance ecosystem service provision under changing climates is a pressing issue, but it's clearly one complicated by the temporal and spatial nature of the problem. In a three part series, I want to problematize how we conceptualize climate "adaptation". In this post I discuss how regulators at local, state, and federal agencies - often the front line of climate response - might be both constrained and enabled to act on the temporal dynamism of changing climates. In the post to follow, I again ask about regulators, but ask who's responsible for, capable of, and willing to respond, focusing on the spatial nature of climate change - the differences between climate change as something globally produced and solvable, but with especially regionalized and localized effects. Finally, I look at the vulnerability of people to the effects of climate change - think increased flooding - and how ecosystem services alone - think restoration of wetlands or sand dunes - may or may not mitigate vulnerabilities.

There is certainly a literature on climate change, ecosystem services, restoration. I want to pull out three key points: 1) we really don't know how successful restoration is at developing ecosystem function; 2) changing climates will intensify ecosystem processes and make them more variable, dynamic; 3) climate change is global, but its effects are variegated - some places will fare better than others.

The question is how regulators like those in the scenario can deal with this. For starters, stream services - be it water temperature regulation, surface water storage, or sediment transport - are going to change over time as increased rainfall intensity and shifts in snowmelt timings and quantity reshape streams. In markets or payment schemes for stream restoration - where a landowner like the one we opened with gets paid by a local water utility - what happens when the service the landowner was supposed to provide no longer exists or does not function in the same way anymore because drought and higher temperatures killed off her trees? Can regulators practice adaptive management - going back and revisiting restoration projects and ask land managers to adapt them to the climate du jour? Or can regulators ask for "future-proof" designs that are meant to be resilient over time?

Newly planted trees at a stream restoration project that provides temperature offsets.
My answer is one of those typical social sciences cop-outs: it depends. Yes and no. In the yes camp: 1) in PES schemes or markets regulators get a chance to "condition" so that land managers only get to sell restoration credits if certain "performance standards" are met. Regulators may be able to make some of these standards about site performance in the face of regional climate effects. Moreover, regulators, especially after the 2008 federal rule on stream/wetland mitigation markets, can ask land managers to put aside money for a long-term endowment that will ensure the site will continue to function over time; 2) In these markets, regulators also craft the ecological assessments by which restoration sites are evaluated. They may be able to write these assessments in such a way to "future-proof" restoration, by encouraging restorationists to design streams that are adaptable to changing climates. The authors of a draft stream assessment in Oregon, for instance, want to assess ecological functions as a way of gaging how over time, a site will perform. This is an improvement on how most assessments currently operate, but it raises the question of how to "future-proof" restoration to "unknown unknowns" of climate change. In other words, functions-based assessment provides a good deal of insurance for the future, but it does not necessarily give regulators the authority, 15 years later, to go back and ask land managers to plant more trees, put in more logs, or do something completely different. Most of the times, they're off the hook after 5-10 years.

In the no camp, I only want to point out that any sort of planning for future ecological conditions always presents a challenge because it leaves agencies open to litigation from those who will say, "you can't ask us to do that." In much the same way that agencies are more or less limited in what offsite factors - think upstream sedimentation - they can ask restorationists to account for, they will be constrained in asking land managers to think about the future. These markets are mitigation markets, where restorationists are supposed to provide "ecological uplift" in a similar kind and degree of impact elsewhere, like when a landowner plants riparian trees to cool streams that have been warmed by effluent from a municipal wastewater plant. And so as long as the landowner can cool the same amount of kcals/day of water that the plant is adding to the system, they are ok. Whether they also provide salmon habitat, refugia for climate affected species, etc., is another question. Subsidy payment schemes may have different, potentially more encompassing, criteria. Moreover, as practitioners know, incorporating "ecosystem services" into official regulatory practice is not an easy project. It's not a straightforward term, and it's not in any statute, and it can become another thing restorationists would point to and say, "what is that and why do we have to do it?"

What it all comes back to is that already existing markets in ecosystem services may or may not be responsive to climate change. At this point, you might be thinking, "this sounds like a lot of 'depends'!" That's my point. The ways that regulators are going to respond to climate effects in markets for streams, wetlands, species, etc. is going to depend on: 1) what level of government they're working in. Federal authorities may have powers that local governments don't - and vice versa; 2) it'll depend on where they're working - Oregon environmental agencies have had different institutional responses to emerging issues like climate than, say, Texas. I'll take up this spatial/scalar unevenness of regulation in more detail in my next post.

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