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Creating Resilience by Restoring Land

The Blue River flows 41 miles across Kansas and Missouri, through five counties and 20 municipalities. Photo by Pat Whalen.

Land loss contributes to climate change and destroys the landscape’s resiliency, causing problems for communities. According to a report prepared by KC Water, the most significant effects of climate change in our region will be increased heat and flooding. What causes this loss of land? One way to consider these losses is that we have removed natural things (like plants) from where they naturally occur (like along a stream); or have placed non-natural things where they do not belong (like dams or buildings); and of course any combination of these actions. Examples of land loss can be found in parts of the Blue River watershed. As new homes, businesses, sewer lines, roads and bridges are built across the landscape, the Blue River’s natural buffers are being removed. These buffers once sequestered carbon, captured and filtered stormwater, and cooled the local environment. But with no buffer, the accelerated stormwater was piped into the streams and eroded stream banks. This has contributed to flooding that endangers lives and properties in the floodplain downstream.

Top left - large swath of land in the upper Blue River watershed that has been cleared of all vegetation in preparation for residential development. Top right – asphalt road and storm drain in the middle Blue River watershed. Bottom - concrete channel in the lower Blue River.

The first step to creating climate resilience is understanding that the Blue River and the open spaces in its basin provide important services to everyone. Armed with this understanding, the next step is to begin restoring areas damaged by past development. Land restoration can be viewed as taking actions to reverse losses and includes replacing things where they naturally belong and removing things from where they do not belong. For example, restoration can involve removing the concrete and asphalt and replacing these impervious materials with native plants and trees. “You can use shade trees to cool riparian corridors, which is like having a web of air conditioning in your city,” HCA Board member, Scott Schulte shared. Recently, Heartland Conservation Alliance has supported research by Kansas State University and The Nature Conservancy-Kansas to study the benefits of restoring stream corridors. Working with partners in the Blue River Conservation Collaboration, we are using this research to find places to begin restoring land. Te current areas of focus can be found in the 2020 Blue River Action Plan. We are also working together to protect land from development using conservation easements Conservation easements empower landowners to protect land from unwanted construction that could harm the natural landscape. Conservation easements preserve forests or help create positive recreational spaces. In order to build true resiliency, it is also important to focus restoration efforts where they benefit people. Heartland Conservation Alliance uses environmental justice to guide our focus on potential project areas as well scientific data. For example we are prioritizing efforts in communities that have experienced disinvestment and carry a disproportionate burden of the effects of climate change. One example of addressing these inequalities would be restoring riverside forests and making them open to the public. People who do not have or cannot afford to run their air conditioning could take advantage of these forests. These forests also would provide social infrastructure and strengthen community cohesiveness by offering places to gather, gardens, or simply go on a walk. Nature is diverse and dynamic, but people have disrupted the landscape and made changes that depleted nature of its diversity and caused land loss. To make our landscape resilient once more, we must reintroduce native plants and the Blue River’s natural buffers. If we do this, we will revive a resilient landscape that benefits all of us.

Hear more about the benefits of restoring nature in an interview with Executive Director, Jill Erickson on KCUR's Update Date program.

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