Welcome to “What’s Up With Water,” your need-to-know news of the world’s water from Circle of Blue. I’m Eileen Wray-McCann.
At the UN climate conference last week, Colombian officials said they would declare 30 percent of the country as protected land by next year. That deadline is eight years earlier than the original goal of 2030. EuroNews reports that biodiversity advocates are praising the move. Climate change is threatening freshwater systems in Colombia, where cloud forests provide 70 percent of the country’s drinking water. Cloud forests are rain forests characterized by frequent low-level cloud cover. They are vital for recycling moisture from land to air and back again. Tom Stevens, of the nonprofit group Fauna & Flora International, said that preserving those forests sequesters carbon while also protecting supplies of drinking water and hydropower.
In the United States, Google and an Oregon city in which it operates are working to keep Google’s water consumption out of the public eye. Google uses water for its data centers, and the city of The Dalles filed a lawsuit in an effort to keep information about that a secret. The Oregonian newspaper sought the water-use data ahead of a City Council vote on a $28 million water deal with Google to expand its data center operations. The tech giant is considering two new server farms in the northern Oregon city, which is located along the Columbia River. Google officials say their data centers need more water to cool the equipment, but neither the city nor Google will say exactly how much more. Google claims the water-use data is a trade secret. The city’s lawsuit seeks to overturn a previous ruling that allowed Google’s water use  to be available as public record.
This week, Circle of Blue reports on how climate change is gripping trout streams across the United States.
The air is rich with the scent of untamed water as David McCool sets his boat in the Au Sable River in northern Michigan. The sounds of the morning belong to the birds and the bright clear ripples. The river beckons with a powerful beauty, with the thrill of life.  Henry Ford and John Rockefeller fished the Au Sable, and Ernest Hemingway called the spot “good stuff for essays.”
McCool has fished the Au Sable more times than he can count. He’s a master angler who’s been plying his rod for 20 years, but he never tires of the adventure. The crystal waters of the Au Sable course across 138 miles of northern Michigan forest. The river is one of the country’s renowned places to cast a fly. It’s so revered as a trout fishery that in 1959 a group of Au Sable fishermen formed Trout Unlimited, which is now the country’s premier advocacy organization protecting cold-water streams in Michigan and nationwide.
Some 60 years later, though, the Au Sable is ill. A slow emergency is brewing in the peaceful waters, which are getting warmer. They are feeling the effects of Michigan’s unusually warm winter temperatures, followed by historic drought and one of the hottest summers on record. Said McCool “The guides of the Au Sable,  we’re on the front lines. Just a small change in temperature can have a massive impact on this resource. We need to make sure we still take care of it, as things change in our environment.”
Ecologically speaking, fish are the canary in the coal mine. Trout are an indicator species in the Au Sable, meaning that their welfare mirrors their ecosystem. Randy Claramunt is a biologist with Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources. He told Circle of Blue “Healthy trout is indicative that the whole system is healthy.” Likewise, unhealthy populations are an alarm bell: the poor water quality conditions that cause trout to suffer are probably also stressing invertebrates and other biota.
It’s a story that is repeating nationwide. In the Klamath River in California, spawning salmon are weakened by warm waters and low oxygen levels, and their carcasses are piling up and rotting. In Montana this summer, drought reduced once-raging trout streams to a trickle. In the Columbia River, steelhead are at an all-time low. As anglers survey the damage, they are calling to protect these environments from further harm.
On the Au Sable, flooding also is a stressor. Recent years have seen more severe temperature swings during springtime when the snowpack begins to melt. The snowpack feeds the river, so this instability intensifies flooding, which can sweep away trout eggs and pummel a generation of young fish who aren’t yet strong swimmers. Said Claramunt: “If that happens once, it’s okay; the next year kind of makes up for it. But after a few years, if that happens again and again, will the population recover?”
Other bodies of water show the devastation that these stressors threaten. In the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, Canada, a predatory warmwater fish species known as the striped bass is intruding into warming waters and decimating the coldwater salmon population. In the Great Lakes, consistently elevated temperatures have allowed invasive zebra mussels to colonize, where they have altered the ecosystem’s food chain and nutrient flow beyond repair. Claramunt fears that a sustained decline in the trout population could have similarly far-reaching impacts in the Au Sable. He described it as a potential “off ramp” that could change the stream community, perhaps irrevocably.
The decline of river ecosystems is intensifying the anxiety that young anglers feel about their planet. At age 14, Landen Finkle worries about the condition of the river near his home in Traverse City, Michigan. He’s particularly concerned about the loss of biodiversity. Like a majority of his generation, climate and environmental issues weigh heavily upon him. Finkle is fascinated with freshwater ecology, and hopes to guide fishing expeditions one day. But the increasing signs of the river’s decline make him feel helpless at times, and fearful for the future of this vital source of connection and fulfillment.
Across the country, these anxieties are gradually translating into political momentum. Recreational fishermen are a demographic that leans politically conservative, and the issue has begun changing minds about climate change. Todd Tanner, a writer and lifelong sportsman, is the president of the climate education nonprofit group Conservation Hawks, run for and by hunters and anglers. Tanner founded the group after a story he had written about climate change was rejected by an outdoors magazine whose editor called the issue a “Communist plot.”
Tanner says the industry and its media have come a long way since then. There are still hunters and anglers who deny the scientific consensus that climate change is caused by human behavior. But for many others, seeing the effects firsthand has changed their opinions on the issue. As Tanner put it “It’s just becoming so obvious that they don’t really have a choice—they just have to accept it.”  Over the past decade, popular member organizations like Trout Unlimited have started explicitly incorporating climate change into their advocacy and messaging. Adds Tanner: “The big question in my mind isn’t whether sportsmen or women will eventually understand what’s happening and engage with it; they will. The big question in my mind is whether that will happen in time to make a difference.”
The good news is that, just as stress on river ecosystems accumulates, so too it can be lessened. The root cause of the issue is global climate change, which can only be addressed by rapidly curbing carbon emissions. But in the meantime, mitigation techniques can make the difference between a fish population persisting or succumbing to environmental pressures.
The most straightforward solution is to limit overfishing. There is a gentleman’s agreement among fly fishing guides on the Au Sable not to make expeditions when the water temperature is over 68 degrees, when even catch-and-release can kill a fish. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources has posted signs along the river to this effect, encouraging people to refrain from fishing under these conditions.
David McCool, the master angler, hopes that state officials will go farther and begin put regulations in force. The Department of Natural Resources told Circle of Blue that it has been taking a slow approach. Michigan Fisheries Chief Jim Dexter said that the department is researching the effect of regulations in other states. Officials could temporarily suspend fishing in certain sections of streams, but that option has rarely been used in Michigan.
Other mitigation methods include simple conservation tactics that can make a world of difference to bolster fish resiliency. Many such strategies were developed by Indigenous communities who have used them for centuries.  For example, restoring trees along deforested riverbanks can shade the ecosystem and cool the river during extreme heat. Removing dams and other stream barriers enables fish to follow their instinctive migrations.
As McCool looks back at this year’s difficult season, he sees a world that has altered dramatically since the start of his fly fishing career. It’s a fifty-pound problem on a four-pound line, but he knows the value of persistence, and making the best use of the tools you have.  He said “We just watch and see, and take measurements. It’s a very delicate environment, and needs to be taken care of.”
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies more than ever on your support for independent water news and analysis. Right now, your tax-deductible gift goes twice as far, thanks to NewsMatch. This challenge grant will match your one-time or monthly donation dollar for dollar. It’s a limited time offer – so find out more – and make a difference at This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here for us.