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Keywords:

  • global water change;
  • water quality;
  • ecological thresholds;
  • droughts;
  • floods

ABSTRACT: Data from long-term ecosystem monitoring and research stations in North America and results of simulations made with interpretive models indicate that changes in climate (precipitation and temperature) can have a significant effect on the quality of surface waters. Changes in water quality during storms, snowmelt, and periods of elevated air temperature or drought can cause conditions that exceed thresholds of ecosystem tolerance and, thus, lead to water-quality degradation. If warming and changes in available moisture occur, water-quality changes will likely first occur during episodes of climate-induced stress, and in ecosystems where the factors controlling water quality are sensitive to climate variability. Continued climate stress would increase the frequency with which ecosystem thresholds are exceeded and thus lead to chronic water-quality changes. Management strategies in a warmer climate will therefore be needed that are based on local ecological thresholds rather than annual median condition. Changes in land use alter biological, physical, and chemical processes in watersheds and thus significantly alter the quality of adjacent surface waters; these direct human-caused changes complicate the interpretation of water-quality changes resulting from changes in climate, and can be both mitigated and exacerbated by climate change. A rigorous strategy for integrated, long-term monitoring of the ecological and human factors that control water quality is necessary to differentiate between actual and perceived climate effects, and to track the effectiveness of our environmental policies.