Human communities around the Grand River—and ecosystems within it—are expected to face increasing challenges in light of projected climate changes in the region. WMEAC met with Nichol DeMol, Project Manager for the Rogue River Home Rivers Initiative of West Michigan Trout Unlimited, to discuss climate change effects in the Grand River area.
WMEAC: What are the most significant effects of climate change for human communities and ecosystems?
Nichol DeMol: In the Rogue River watershed, [climate change] will have a huge impact on the community. The Rogue River has a trout fishery and trout streams, and groundwater’s extremely important. And if we have more groundwater runoff or changes in climate, that’s going to heat those river systems up and trout won’t be able to live there anymore. So we’ve seen a huge change in water quality, and we’ve found that those communities really benefit from that river and the health of that river—not only anglers, but people who recreate on that river. We did an economic study last year, and just during the three months of the summer, we found that $7 million comes into those communities from recreational activities. As they’re facing climate change, we need to think about the impacts that it could have economically on those communities that live around those rivers.
WMEAC: Would you say that Michigan’s aquatic and riparian communities face greater climate change threats than terrestrial communities do?
NDM: I think it will probably be harder on the aquatic communities in Michigan, because there is so much water. Not only the stuff we see in the lakes and rivers, but also in our wetlands and groundwater, which are extremely important sources. It seems like the sensitivity, especially with our coldwater systems, is higher because there is only this narrow range for them. So if there’s a one degree difference in water temperature, you can see a huge change in the fish communities. It seems like terrestrial species may be able to buffer temperature changes like that a little more. And that’s just in my opinion; I don’t really do a lot with terrestrial.
WMEAC: What are some of the specific effects of temperature increases on a few of these coldwater species?
NDM: The trout have a certain temperature range where they’re not using lots of energy for just functioning—so, metabolic rates and different things—but if the water’s warmer, they’re trying to cool themselves down, so all of their energy is going into that. So what we’re seeing is that if you do have trout, and they’re able to withstand the temperature, it will be at that upper end [of their resilience], so you’ll probably see lower growth rates in the trout, and reproduction levels going down. We’ve seen a little bit of that with steelhead in the Rogue River. We also want to look at more seasonal changes. When it rains and the snow melts, that’s when the steelhead move up into the river system. But what we’re seeing is that the steelhead are moving up earlier, like in February, and they lay their eggs, and then we could get a cold temperature in March, and a lot of those eggs will die. So I think those indicators that fish have used in the past have been changing.
WMEAC: What are some actions—small or large—that Grand Rapids citizens can take to encourage ecosystem resiliency?
NDM: Most of our focus dealing with climate resiliency has been removing fish barriers, or dams. And the reason for doing that is the headwaters of our creeks tend to have more groundwater inputs—they tend to be more naturally-preserved areas. So, with the increases in temperature, we want fish to be able to find that refuge. In some cases, you can involve a homeowner—there is some private property [bordering the creeks]. So the big thing for us is really the green infrastructure. Things like the rain gardens and the rain barrels in our areas where we’re working with homeowners along the streams provide native stream buffers.
WMEAC: What would you most like people to know about the Grand River and climate change?
NDM: I think the biggest thing is probably that it is happening. I think that a lot of people don’t recognize that it’s happening. So if we can get the citizens and stakeholders in the area to first understand that, get educated about that and about proactive practices that they can put in and feel like they’re doing something. I think the big thing is sometimes people don’t want to believe it’s happening because it’s a large concept and they feel like they can’t do anything about it. So I think the biggest thing is to start that awareness and education, and make it seem a little bit easier to take smaller things that homeowners can do to protect the Grand River watershed.
The Rogue River, for instance, is not a watershed that’s been degraded, so we consider it a high-quality watershed. And some people think “oh, that’s okay—we don’t need to put funds or resources into that.” But it’s going to be those types of rivers that help with that resiliency in the future. So, not to give up on the ones that are degraded, necessarily, but to protect those ones that are still in really good condition.