Handling The Rising Tide Of Climate Change In Our Region

Jan 12, 2017

the Bluestone Dam near Hinton, W. Va. is part of a large network of locks and dams operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Ohio River Basin. Dams and reservoirs could play a key role in dealing with the increased precipitation that's expected in the region as a result of climate change.
Credit U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

In a farewell address this week, President Obama reiterated his administration’s commitment to acting on climate change—and his thoughts on the gravity of issue.

“Without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change. They’ll be busy dealing with its effects,” he said.

Dealing with the impacts of climate change is something the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been grappling with for decades, especially as it relates to managing the nation’s waterways. In our region, the Army Corps’ Gus Drum has been working on a climate adaptation plan for the Ohio River Basin, from its headwaters here in Pennsylvania to the Mississippi.

That plan won’t be released until later this year, but Drum says that based on the nine climate models used by federal agencies to assess climate impacts on water, we can expect hotter, wetter weather across the region.

“In terms of perception, the Allegheny [River] gets progressively wetter. Especially in the springtime, we do see increases in precipitation—as much as 25 percent—which could result in higher stream flows.”

With that much more water, Drum says that could change how the agency operates the 83 Army Corps dams that are on the Ohio River. But he says those structures, even though they were designed in the middle of the 20th century, are up to the challenge.

“They designed huge safety factors for storage,” Drum says. “Each one has a water control manual of how the project is supposed to be operated under certain conditions. So we’d probably make changes potentially to address climate change, by changing the water control manuals for the storage or release of water.”

Drum says some climatologists are concerned that an increase in heavy thunderstorms could also lead to more flash flooding, especially in steep mountainous areas.

“We do have some levees and flood walls that have a specific crest height of protection, so there is a little concern over whether those crest heights will be high enough to handle these new rainfall events.”

Drum also says that, although the dams are old, they’ll likely be repaired or updated before the worst climate impacts are expected. And as temperatures rise, there actually might be some benefits to all that new preciptation for some fish species and freshwater mussels.

“The reservoirs are very deep, so they contain a lot of cold water down at the bottom. And so those times when air temperatures may increase water temperatures, the water coming out of those reservoirs will be cool enough to maintain temperatures downstream that otherwise may have gotten too warm for a number of species.”

Find this report and others on the site of our partner, Allegheny Front