Assessing the Vulnerability of Watersheds to Climate Change

The US Forest Service (USFS) Watershed Vulnerability Assessment (WVA) project developed an approach to assessing the vulnerability of water resources in a watershed to projected climate-hydrologic changes. The WVA project was conducted by watershed and aquatic specialists from 11 National Forests across the country representing all nine Forest Service regions. Based on the lessons learned from the pilot projects, this summary report provides guidance on the process of conducting such an assessment, with supporting information for all the key stages of the process. The report also offers adaptive management strategies and priorities for watershed resilience to climate change.

Each National Forest identified water resources important in that area, assessed climate change exposure and watershed sensitivity, and evaluated the relative vulnerabilities of regional watersheds to climate change. The process developed and tested by the WVA project proved to be useful in a wide variety of geographic settings and organizational structures, with varying priorities and focal climate impacts. The USFS process can therefore be used by other national forest and grassland personnel across the country to support other locally-focused assessments. Though differing in detail and data availability, the majority of the pilot forests were able to complete the assessment process in under a year.  

The following primary steps to developing a climate vulnerability assessment for watersheds are given comprehensive review with sub-steps, important assessment principles and/or considerations for each step, and examples from the pilot projects:

  1. Identify Water Resource Values and Scales of Analysis
  2. Assess Exposure
  3. Evaluate Watershed Sensitivity
  4. Evaluate and Categorize Vulnerability
  5. Identify Adaptive Management Responses
  6. Critique the Assessment

The greatest value found overall in applying assessment results is identifying particular geographical areas to prioritize adaptive management efforts. Some of the specific recommended climate resilience strategies from the watershed assessment results include: 

  • contesting new water rights proposals
  • exploring ways to convert existing water rights into instream flows
  • improving conditions in grazing allotments
  • restoring natural function in meadows
  • implementing silvicultural treatments aimed at moving toward more natural fire regimes


Publication Date: July 2013

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  • Assessment
  • Assessment guide
  • Case study


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