Climate Connections: Climate change is global, resilience local
Climate change is a global phenomenon bringing more extreme weather events and warming temperatures world-wide. In Montana, scientists anticipate more severe weather, larger wildfires, outbreaks of invasive species, more frequent floods, and lower streamflow for the Northern Rockies.
But just because climate change is big and complex doesn’t mean it’s unstoppable or out of our control. We can take action to help rebuild resilience in our communities and local ecosystems.
For the Clark Fork Coalition, most of our work has some connection to climate impacts—either we’re addressing threats that are exacerbated by increasingly unpredictable extreme weather events, or we’re implementing solutions geared toward creating refugia, mitigating effects, and finding efficiencies to lower stresses on the watershed. We also use climate change as a lens to think critically about the future of the basin and our communities.
For example, Grant Creek is an important wilderness tributary of the Clark Fork River. Upper Grant Creek’s cold, clear, complex waters and thick forest habitats sustain a rich diversity of wildlife, including native bull trout, bear, moose, songbirds, raptors, beaver, and many other species. These conditions make for a high-quality climate refuge for native trout and wildlife. But for these species to survive long-term, they need to be able to move through healthy habitats from the headwaters to the confluence with the Clark Fork near Kelly Island.
Currently, lower Grant Creek is a highly hazardous section of stream corridor for fish and wildlife. Excessive sediment, high water temperatures, high nutrient levels from agricultural and residential runoff, severe bank erosion, and industrial and agricultural waste dumping impair water quality. Water levels are chronically low because of irrigation and loss of riparian vegetation, as well as impacts from climate change. There are numerous fish passage barriers and a lack of pools, shade, and cover between its straightened, channelized, and rip-rapped banks. Due to decades of alteration by human activity, Grant Creek has lost some of its natural ability to adapt to external pressures.
Missoulians value clean water, a healthy environment now and for future generations, and the ability to connect to nature even in our urban location. These values are a central part of our identity as a community—and when our watershed is healthy our community thrives. The major residential development projects planned for west Missoula’s Sxwtpqyen area should have a living, life-giving, and accessible stream flowing through it, rather than a constrained ditch.
To that end, an impressive group of businesses and nonprofits has coalesced around the need for a vision and strategy for Grant Creek that looks at the stream holistically. The Grant Creek Working Group is writing a document to help guide community-driven revival of the stream with the support of the City of Missoula and Missoula County. Together, we’re writing a new chapter for how urban communities relate to their natural environments—where the health and resilience of a waterway is a priority, not an afterthought.
As our local governments make decisions about development, this Grant Creek vision and strategy will help balance the needs for housing, growth, and an ecologically functioning system that underlies the health and resilience of the community in the face of a warming West.
Stream restoration is a way the community can connect around caring for our aquatic lifelines, while building a stable, climate-smart future. Rehabilitation of the highly impacted bottom six miles of Grant Creek is the linchpin to a healthy, climate-resilient stream, connecting its wilderness headwaters to the Clark Fork River.
By re-establishing natural physical processes, re-naturalizing channels, and reconnecting the stream to its floodplain, we can protect against increasingly frequent extreme weather stemming from an amped-up climate. At the same time, these restoration actions improve the physical and ecological diversity of the stream corridor and create nature-rich habitats that will help fish and wildlife survive and thrive in a warming world.
The Grant Creek Working Group meets the last Friday of each month at Highlander Brewery. Meetings are open to the public. Grant Creek restoration includes volunteer opportunities for replanting riparian vegetation, cleaning trash along streambanks, and advocating local government officials to embrace the vision of an intact stream from headwaters to mouth. Visit www.clarkfork.org for details.
Sam Dwyer is the Communications Manager for the Clark Fork Coalition. Climate Smart Missoula brings this Climate Connections column to you two Fridays of every month. Learn more about our work and sign up for our e-newsletter at missoulaclimate.org.