The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Basin of Change

Understanding hydrosystems to predict and respond to climate change along the Connecticut River
  • Researcher Casey Brown and a view of the Connecticut River.

“Right now, at UMass, we have maybe the highest concentration of people who are working on water resources systems analysis,” says Brown.

Some people use it for recreation. Others depend on it for their electricity. Whatever the use, the Connecticut River watershed has a connection to everyone in the Pioneer Valley and beyond.

Water effects everyone,” says Casey Brown, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UMass Amherst and part of the Department’s HydroSystems Research Group. “What we’re talking about are systems that provide their drinking water, provide their household water … provide them electricity, provide them protection from hazardous events, such as floods.”  The research being done by Brown and his team is aimed at keeping these important systems of the Connecticut River, the largest river in New England, operating as well in the future as they are currently. Funding for Brown’s research is provided by grants from The Nature Conservancy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Science Foundation.

Despite close proximity to the Connecticut River, Brown and his team have been able to conduct most of their research in the laboratory, using a virtual computer model of the watershed they have developed. The model is based on streamflow data from the U.S. Geological Survey, climate data from the NOAA, data on dam operations from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as discussions with ecologists regarding flows needed for fish and floodplain ecosystems. The model includes most of the large infrastructure along the Connecticut River, including 60 dams and major tributaries, the flow of the river’s mainstem, and calculates hydroelectricity benefits and reliability of water supply, among other factors.

Brown’s team is also able to analyze the impact that climate change will have on flows along the watershed and its tributaries, as well as the potential use of climate forecasts in infrastructure operations. Currently, reservoirs have specific operating levels at which they hold or release water, according to Brown. “Really, what we’re interested in is, if you have a forecast -- say, the next three months are likely to be drier than average or wetter than average -- could you do things differently?”     

In light of Hurricane Irene, Brown also notes concern over the potential for increased flood risk in the region. Another aspect of his team’s research involves what he called “soft infrastructure” in dealing with the uncertainties of climate change. “Instead of depending on dams and levees to protect you from floods, can you designate certain areas for flooding that then allows you sort of a safety relief valve if you have very high flow conditions?”

Brown’s team has developed new ideas in regards to soft infrastructure and believes they are the first to rigorously test the effectiveness of soft infrastructure using their model based on a real watershed.

Another innovative approach is the use of what Brown calls “decision scaling,” which involves identifying climate change risks on the water system infrastructure and then analyzing climate projections. Brown says most other researchers take the opposite approach, starting with climate projections. “The problem is there’s so much uncertainty with these projections, you don’t uncover the risks that you do in our method.”

Brown and his team identify these risks in part by conversing with stakeholders along the river, including water managers, the hydroelectricity industry, public utilities, drinking water utilities, and environmentalists. Brown gives credit to The Nature Conservancy for its role in convening stakeholders and getting a sense of their priorities.

The Connecticut River is also home to many other species, including migratory fish, such as alewives, and some endangered species, such as tiger beetles. Many of these species rely on the natural variability of the river over 10-year flood cycles, according to Brown. This natural variability is disrupted by human-built infrastructure that alters flow levels and catches floods, which sustain ecosystems that would naturally exist along the river. “The question we’re looking at is, can you manage this [watershed] so that it provides all the things we want from it -- hydroelectricity, a safe and reliable drinking water supply, recreation -- can you provide these things while also providing a sustaining habitat for the species that call it home?”

Brown is also interested in how people are planning for climate change. In the Pioneer Valley, people are focused on mitigation says Brown. “In other words, I think locally people are thinking about how can we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions?” Now, says Brown, people need to start focusing on adaptation. “Now that the climate is changing, do we need to change as well? Do we need to change our operations? Do we need to do things differently in order to prepare for the implications of climate change?”

Brown’s team is in the process of surveying cities across the Northeast regarding their plans for the impacts of climate change on their water infrastructure. So far, the team has found that, while a handful of larger cities have made plans, the vast majority of smaller cities have not. “We want to know why,” said Brown. “Maybe they just aren’t thinking about it, maybe they don’t think it’s important, maybe they’ve thought about it and don’t think that their system is vulnerable to it.”

While the Connecticut River watershed is a major focus of the UMass HydroSystems Research Group, the team is conducting research on other large water resource systems elsewhere in the U.S. as well, including assessing the effects of climate change on lake levels in the Great Lakes and other research on part of the Mississippi River watershed.

The group’s research also has global implications. Brown describes the Connecticut River watershed as a smaller version of major watersheds around the world where they are also conducting research including the Niger River basin in Africa and the Indus River basin in Pakistan. In some countries along the Niger River, considerations are being made for developing new watershed infrastructure, such as dams. “The question,” says Brown, “is can they do it in such a way that they don’t have to have really large negative impacts on the environment? Those are possible implications of our study also.”

Brown worked at Columbia University prior to his current position at UMass Amherst, and he knew right away that the Connecticut River would be the focus of his research here. “I’m fascinated with large [watersheds] and the impacts of human activities in these [watersheds] and what the implications are for the natural flows and for the ecosystems that depend on these natural flows,” says Brown. “And then you introduce the uncertainty and the potential of climate change to these systems and it’s really sort of a grand experiment going on in terms of what’s going to happen.”

Brown says the skill that UMass Amherst researchers have for water and climate research is “unparalleled” in preparing the University to research this grand experiment. “Right now, at UMass, we have maybe the highest concentration of people who are working on water resources systems analysis,” says Brown. “Water resources systems analysis is, I think, the critical approach needed to answer these types of complicated questions, of how we manage our river systems, especially in view of climate change.”

The groundbreaking research that Brown and others at UMass Amherst are conducting was underscored by the recent award of the Northeast Climate Science Center to the campus by the Department of the Interior. “It was real recognition of our leadership in the field of water and climate and that’s certainly true. Certainly in the Northeast, I think our work in water and climate is unparalleled and the fact that we have [this new] center here is a real reflection of that.”

Jed Winer ’12