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Slowing the Flow for Climate Resilience: Reducing Vulnerability to Extreme Flood and Drought Events

Slowing the Flow for Natural Resource Adaptation Resilience (SFCR): Reducing Vulnerability to Extreme Flows and Providing Multiple Ecological Benefits (Approved Award Title)


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In the Northeastern U.S., climate change is expected to increase the frequency of extreme precipitation events. However, less rain is predicted to fall in between these extreme events and air temperatures are also expected to rise. This combination of conditions will likely expose the Northeast to both floods and droughts that will have significant ecological, social, and economic implications for the region. Infrastructure damage from extreme storm events, increased competition for water supplies during droughts, and the potential loss of wildlife and habitats are some of the various challenges facing resource managers and decision makers. Management actions that mitigate the damage from extreme floods and droughts are likely to be [...]

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“Connecticut River - Public domain”
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In a climate-altered future, identifying and implementing management actions that mitigate anticipated flow regime extremes (floods and droughts) are likely to be an important component of climate adaptation strategies and planning. We will assess whether a ‘slow the flow’ approach (increasing natural water storage via activities such as floodplain reconnection, conversion of impervious surfaces, beaver management, and restoring complexity and sinuosity to stream channels) for integrated watershed management can decrease water resource and infrastructure (such as roads and residences) vulnerability to extreme events while providing additional benefits for ecosystems and fish and wildlife habitat. To achieve this objective, we will convene stakeholder working groups, co-develop alternative scenarios, and develop and apply models to help managers and conservation organizations develop ‘win-win’ solutions to climate change adaptation.

Project Extension

typeTechnical Summary
valueUW-Madison personnel will execute three stages of work, corresponding to each year of the project. In the first year, we will use GIS databases to assess the locations of all dams in tributaries of Lake Michigan within the state of Wisconsin. For each one, aerial imagery will be used to evaluate the degree of upstream ponding and likely sediment retention, and land cover data will be distilled to quantitatively summarize land use patterns in each watershed (agriculture vs. urban vs.forest vs. wetland). At a subset of dams, field sampling will confirm inferences from GIS databases, and enable empirical comparisons of nutrient concentrations upstream vs. downstream of the dam. In the second year, we will work with Dr. Peter Esselman from USGS' Great Lakes Science Center and Dr. Dale Robertson from USGS' Wisconsin Water Center to estimate annual nutrient loads to Lake Michigan from each watershed, and the potential role that dams could play in both slowing the flow of water to Lake Michigan and reducing loads of nitrogen (via denitrification) and phosphorus (via sediment retention). This will involve modeling the relationship between land use and nutrient yield for the region, and then adapting these generalized models to the watersheds of Wisconsin. This collaborative effort will build on Esselman's earlier work on statistical relationships between land use and nutrient yields in the Great Lakes, and Robertson's adaptation of SPARROW models to Great Lakes watersheds. This work will yield an integrative set of models predicting which dams are most likely to mediate nutrient loads to Lake Michigan. In the third year, we will reconcile inferences about nutrient load mediation with McIntyre's dam removal prioritization framework for fish passage. These two major management goals are generally considered in isolation. Our work will directly compare the two, and use a joint prioritization approach to identify individual dams where tradeoffs between restoring fish passage and increasing nutrient loads would be minimized. These results will be conveyed to the stakeholder community through workshops and meetings, to ensure that this dualistic understanding is incorporated into restoration prioritization and on-the-ground efforts of agencies and NGOs throughout the Great Lakes region. Funding from the NECSC will support 7.5 months of graduate student salary in each year of the project. The graduate student, under the direction of the project team, will lead the landcover and GIS analyses for all study watersheds.
projectStatusIn Progress

Budget Extension

typeAward Type
valueCooperative Agreement
typeAward Number

Connecticut River - Public domain
Connecticut River - Public domain


Spatial Services

ScienceBase WMS


  • National and Regional Climate Adaptation Science Centers
  • Northeast CASC



Additional Information

Alternate Titles


Type Scheme Key
RegistrationUUID NCCWSC 8f3567fe-170b-47b3-83ca-adfb95245dfb
StampID NCCWSC NE16-AD0616

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