Climate ready estuaries at the forefront of adaptation

Climate ready estuaries at the forefront of adaptation

Climate Discourse

There has been an increasing need for the integration of risk into climate adaptation tools and resources to help communities and organizations prepare for climate impacts and increase their resiliency. U.S. President Obama’s Executive Order 13653, called for improving the Nation’s climate preparedness and resilience through “risk-informed decisionmaking and the tools to facilitate it”.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has also noted that “fundamentally, the challenge of managing climate change is a challenge of managing and reducing risk.”

Yet, despite this push for climate adaptation to integrate risk management into vulnerability assessments and climate action plans, there are very few guidance documents to help folks do this. There are even fewer case studies to highlight successes or identify challenges for place-based organizations to increase their climate resilience by focusing on their risks. This guidance is imperative at a time when climate is no longer a thing only of the future but has moved firmly into the present.

EPA’s Climate Ready Estuaries program, which works with the National Estuary Programs and the coastal management community to provide technical guidance and assistance on climate adaptation, has responded to this need for guidance documents with its most recent publication.

Why Risk?

All watershed or coastal organizations will be impacted by climate change. The severity to which they’ll be impacted and the types of stressors they will face will be different from place to place. Some places will face hundreds of climate risks. So the question becomes:

How do organizations decide which risks to tackle first? Or, how do organizations decide which risks they should address given financial or personnel constraints?

The risk management methodology in the workbook helps users to identify and prioritize their climate risks. By determining which risks are their greatest risks, organizations can begin to develop an action plan that identifies potential adaptation actions that address these most pressing risks.

Often, being ”low hanging fruit” qualifies a risk to be addressed over another risk. However, these risks might not have a high likelihood of occurring or are not disastrous if they do occur. Without identifying the risks that are most pressing and consequential, organizations may squander limited resources and staff time on adaptation actions that ultimately do not offer the most risk-reduction potential.

Organizational Goals are Essential

The Climate Ready Estuaries workbook is different from other vulnerability assessment guidebooks that are out there, not only because of its focus on risks but also because it asks organizations to evaluate risks and vulnerability respective only to their goals.

Organizations have defined goals or mission statements that lay out concretely what their organization serves to do. Their stakeholders rely on them to strive toward those goals, whether they are related to water quality or habitat restoration or conservation. Although climate may impact an entire ecosystem or region, the workbook directs organizations to focus only on the climate risks that relate directly to their ability do their jobs. This keeps the scope of the vulnerability assessment from getting too large and unwieldy and also allows organizations to really determine which risks they are equipped to deal with and which risks they may have to accept until more resources or climate knowledge is available.

Ideally all organizations would complete a climate adaptation action plan tailored to their goals, so that all climate risks would be picked up from the public health sector to water resources management and everything in between. Clearly some of these risks will be incurred by many organizations, especially those that have similar goals. In this case, these organizations can work together to share the load for addressing the risk by pooling resources, staff knowledge and expertise, and staff time. Reinforcing and building new partnerships also increases organizational adaptive capacity and climate resilience, while the resulting vulnerability assessment and action plan can act as a communications tool to leverage additional funding or augment local climate discussions.

Putting it into Practice

Climate Ready Estuaries has already piloted the first part of the workbook with the San Juan Bay Estuary Program. The project was a success with SJBEP completing a C/P matrix of its risks related to the organization’s Clean Water Act goals. CRE will be featuring the workbook and the pilot project in a number of webinars and conferences over the next year to familiarize stakeholders and provide technical assistance on the methodology.

To download the workbook, please visit: For any questions or comments relating to the workbook or on Climate Ready Estuaries, please contact:

image via Ashley Brosius Stevenson