Changing climate, changing river

Flooded river at Harriet Island

Partly a result of more frequent and intense precipitation caused by climate change, flooding gives us a sober reminder: We'll have more water problems as climate change continues.

We regularly write about climate change, its effects on our river and what we're doing to increase resilience and mitigate effects. Learn more about how climate change means clean-water crops will be even more important, how we're choosing species for our restoration projects with climate in mind, and how we factor climate change into our riverfront development advocacy.

Find our ongoing climate change updates. And sign up for our twice-monthly e-newsletter, Mississippi Messages, to get articles like these delivered to your inbox.

What does climate change look like in Minnesota?

At current emission trends, most modeling predicts these changes for Minnesota:

  • Hotter average temperatures across the state, including warmer winters (Did you know Minneapolis is the second fastest-warming city in the country? And by 2080, the Twin Cities might feel more like Lansing, Kansas in terms of average temperatures and precipitation.)
  • More frequent, more intense rain and storm events leading to more flash flooding
  • More frequent late-summer drought
  • Shifting ecosystems: woodlands will migrate north and east as our now-western prairie replaces former forests

Climate change and the Mississippi River

Those basic changing trends translate to some major impacts on the Mississippi River, its surrounding natural lands and communities in Minnesota. Here's what we're focused on:

Plants to stem runoff pollution

Intense rain events and flooding wash even more of what's on our land into our waters. In fact, scientists expect nitrate runoff pollution in the upper Mississippi River basin to increase by about 24% during the 21st century.

That means we can't protect the river (or our lakes or drinking water) unless we stem the flow of fertilizer. And we can't do that without addressing its chief source: our agricultural system.

FMR is a key leader in a growing movement to support the integration of new, innovative clean-water crops that can cover our soil and hold it (and fertilizer) in place. These crops and systems will be key to protecting our drinking water, ensuring healthy ecosystems and reducing the Gulf of Mexico dead zone downstream.

That's why we advocate for state investment in the Forever Green Initiative and next-generation clean-water crops that have the power to reduce runoff pollution by as much as 90% while boosting farmers' bottom lines.

Since urban runoff contributes to river pollution too, our volunteers mark storm drains with the reminder to "Keep 'em clean, drains to river." You can stencil storm drains on your own in St. Paul with our DIY stenciling kit.

At dozens of FMR restoration sites, volunteers put long-rooted native plants in the ground to help the land filter pollution and absorb more water, keeping washouts and erosion at bay. In addition to protecting our waters during major runoff events, more plants and longer roots — whether in forests, farm fields, parks or backyards — also sequester more carbon, fighting the cause of climate change as well as its impacts.

Mitigating flooding here and downstream

Creating a resilient landscape will help us mitigate flooding in Minnesota and downstream. FMR is a leader in the effort to pass the federal Mississippi River Restoration & Resilience Initiative that would provide substantial funding for natural infrastructure and flood protection in Mississippi River communities.

The proposed initiative would prioritize investments in communities of color and economically disadvantaged rural and urban communities, both to ensure that economic benefits are equitable and to prevent the worst impacts of climate-driven flood events.

Supporting migration through habitat corridors


Connected habitat along the river corridor will be crucial for climate-forced migrators. (Aerial photo by Tom Reiter)

Within 50 years, climatic conditions for the western third of our state's prairie will expand north and east.

As wildlife attempt to follow their vanishing habitat, biologists have identified river corridors as particularly important for their migration and survival.

Since our founding, FMR has partnered with many agencies and organizations to preserve as much riverine habitat as possible, aiming to create corridors for wildlife. So far we've protected over 1,000 acres and are restoring over 2,000.

Yet, says FMR Conservation Director Betsy Daub, "climate change creates an urgency to try to connect habitat wherever we can."

Diversifying habitat for resilience

As plants and animals that contribute to healthy ecosystems migrate, so will those that degrade habitat.

Flooding aids invasive carp and other aquatic invasive species in jumping watersheds. Fewer periods of deep freezes allow insects like the emerald ash borer to survive through winter at higher rates than in the past. And in response to climatic changes, our habitats will shift, leaving openings for more invasive plants to find a toehold and spread.

But our ecological restoration can help counter these possibilities. "As we restore a diverse community, it becomes more self-sustaining and needs less effort on our part to continue to thrive," says FMR Ecologist Alex Roth.

Plus, if one species wanes under increasing temperatures or other climatic stress, its neighbors might fill in the gap it leaves behind. The mix of plant species in a diverse community decreases its chances of collapse.

We're also planting trees that are predicted to grow successfully in a warmer Minnesotan climate. Because of this, our restorations will make ecosystems more resilient.

Supporting wildlife through habitats great and small


Monarchs and other pollinators need nectar-rich native wildflowers like this blazing star for energy.

Erratic weather and unpredictable seasonal changes can create timing mismatches for species that depend on each other.

Pollinators, for example, may emerge hungry in spring only to find fewer nectar sources in bloom than usual. This heightens the need for habitat — both large-scale and small.

With dozens of habitat restoration sites across the metro region, FMR strives to grow a diverse mix of plants on thousands of acres of prairie, woodland and wetland. But even a small backyard garden of native blooms can help butterflies, bees and other pollinators survive. Learn more about turning your yard into river- and wildlife-friendly habitat.

Riverfront development with climate change and community in mind


Parks and developments will need to consider flooding, runoff and erosion even more seriously.

When it comes to riverfront development and increasing rains, says FMR Land Use & Planning Program Director Colleen O'Connor Toberman, "Our planning standards around stormwater and erosion need to evolve, particularly in sensitive areas along the river."

Luckily we're able to hang our hat on the improved Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area rules that FMR helped create. But a booming real estate market will test the strengths of these standards and the resolve of local elected officials to stand behind them.

We expect to increasingly weigh in on metro development proposals — especially those seeking variances from the new river rules — with an eye to erosion control, landslide prevention and stormwater management.

We're also weighing in on plans to shape our riverfront for access and park spaces. Because of the urban heat island effect, temps will rise even higher in urban areas, as will stress levels. Parks and green spaces help with both, not to mention air quality, runoff pollution reduction and wildlife habitat.

This is particularly important in areas with less green space, often home to more people with lower incomes and people of color. In the Twin Cities, people of color and low-income communities are subjected to disproportionately higher levels of pollutants than other Twin Cities residents.

That's partly because neighborhoods with more low-income residents and/or residents of color have much less park space. Park space is essential for clean air and also for avoiding heat risks. One study found that Minneapolis neighborhoods that were historically redlined are an average of 11 degrees hotter than those that were not. Heat is a proven killer, especially for people with chronic medical conditions.

Restoring green space, especially in these neighborhoods, is an environmental justice concern as the climate warms. The restoration efforts our students and volunteers support across the metro can help reverse this trend.

Seeds of change

Our Stewardship & Education program encourages people to become stewards and caretakers for this place we call home, planting the seeds for climate change efforts through each event and partnership.

Whether we're tending one of our restoration sites or stenciling storm drains on the streets of St. Paul, volunteers and students learn about the river, restoration practices and the history of their parks and green spaces.

Our education and volunteer programs also directly teach people about climate change, actively involving them in solutions like restoring areas in the city that provide respite for people and critters alike.

More climate change resources