State of Preparedness: Wisconsin

Earlier this year, a number of states released plans detailing how they are preparing for climate change. I have reviewed efforts by Maryland, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington so far. Today we’ll look at Wisconsin’s adaptation planning effort.

Wisconsin’s plan is exceptionally detailed and thorough. It is divided into five main impact areas:

  • Water resources
  • Natural habitats and diversity
  • Agriculture and the soil resources
  • Coastal resources
  • People and their environment

The report begins with a detailed discussion of how Wisconsin’s climate has changed in recent decades and what changes can be expected in the future. It is clear that climate change will not impact all parts of the state equally. Precipitation and temperature changes will vary considerably across Wisconsin. The authors use an interesting (and somewhat poetic) metaphor to describe the complexity of these impacts:

“The cause-and-effect relationships of climate change and its impacts do not necessarily fall like dominoes in a predictable linear pattern; rather, each climate change impact creates more of a ripple effect. Picture one component of climate change – rising temperatures, for example – as a pebble tossed into a pond. Watch the ripples spread outwards in concentric circles, affecting a greater area than the point of impact. Now imagine a handful of pebbles – heavier rains, less lake ice, reduced soil moisture – and watch the circles spread, intersect and overlap” (p. 35).

The plan bases its response to these changes on three principles:

  1. Triage: Avoiding efforts that are unlikely to succeed and concentrating on areas where improved management can have the biggest impact
  2. Precautionary principle: Not waiting for certainty to act where the consequences of potential impacts are high
  3. No regrets: Focusing on actions that provide benefits regardless of how the climate changes

We will focus on the water resources adaptation actions to gain a better understanding of the types of strategies Wisconsin is considering in response to climate change. Among the solutions are the following (p. 66):

  • Restoring degraded wetlands to control floods and reduce water pollution
  • Encouraging water conservation through incentives and regulation
  • Reducing impervious areas and protecting groundwater recharge and stream buffers in headwater areas
  • Improving nutrient management on farms, especially through the use of stream buffers
  • Strengthening regulation of nutrients, toxics, and other pollutants

This is one of the most promising sets of proposed adaptation actions in any state adaptation plan. It focuses primarily on ecosystem-based approaches that are more flexible and responsive to climate change conditions. It also addresses existing problems such as impervious land cover and nutrient pollution that make people and the environment less able to respond to changing climate conditions. The report does not focus solely on costly and inflexible large-scale infrastructure solutions as has often been the case in the past. Similarly, in the People and the Environment chapter, there is an emphasis on land acquisition to prevent flooding and low impact development techniques to reduce sewer overflows and improve water quality. Furthermore, Wisconsin’s plan recognizes that these are no regrets strategies that “will result in environmental or societal benefits no matter how the climate changes” (p. 139).

The results are somewhat more mixed when it comes to implementation strategies for the proposed adaptation actions. There are some specific actions such as using Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plans to reduce pollution levels. In other cases, however, the plan does not identify specific actions that the state could take to implement the proposed adaptation actions. There is a stronger focus on voluntary actions such as working with local governments to incorporate better management practices into long-term planning. While this is undoubtedly a vital strategy since many resource use decisions take place at the local level, there are a range of state policies that could be reformed to more effectively encourage adaptation.

Despite these shortcomings, what we see in Wisconsin’s plan and throughout many of the other state adaptation plans that we have examined so far is that climate change is in some cases spurring a renewed look at the ways in which we manage our water resources. Many states have recognized that natural floodplain management, water efficiency and conservation, green infrastructure, and other low-impact strategies provide far greater benefits and better protection from a more volatile and uncertain climate than a single-minded focus on traditional engineered infrastructure systems. While all of these states face enormous challenges in managing water sustainably in a changing climate, these state adaptation plans offer hope that we have learned from some of our past mistakes and can chart a new course toward a more sustainable and secure water future.