Watersheds: A Precious Resource for Building Climate Resilience

The ocean has long inspired Nancy Shrodes, both in her studies at Tufts and in her native California. Today she brings to light the stabilizing role of the South Santa Monica Bay Watershed amid deepening drought and climate uncertainty

For Nancy Shrodes, A11, climate change hits close to home. The severe drought, heat waves, and wildfires in California, where she grew up and now works, underscore the dangerous impact of a warming planet and the need to build climate resiliency.

As senior watershed specialist with Heal the Bay, a nonprofit protecting Southern California’s waterways and coastal ecosystems, Shrodes understands the critical role of watersheds --- areas of land that channel rainfall and snowmelt to a specific receiving body of water, ranging from rivers and lakes to the ocean.

Her broad engagement with Greater Los Angeles communities within the watershed for the South Santa Monica Bay reflects a life devoted to advocacy and education, one singularly focused on raising awareness about watersheds and why local, farsighted climate actions matter. “What we do locally today in our neighborhoods impacts the greater watershed,” she says, “an area that we all share, and upon which we all depend.”

A Problem of Now

Shrodes’ path to environmental advocacy began where she grew up: Manhattan Beach, California. School visits to the local aquarium quickened her love of oceans and marine life, and by high school, with the world awakening to the consequences of a warming planet, she knew she wanted to teach children about climate change. She followed that calling to Tufts, where she majored in environmental studies and Spanish. She would later earn a master’s degree in water resource engineering at Loyola Marymount University, simultaneously completing training to join thousands of like-minded activists on Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

Her goal is to communicate the urgency of climate change. “This is not a problem of the future, it's a problem of now,” she says. And it’s time to take action, she adds: “While predictive models show a trend toward increasing record-breaking heat, hurricanes, and floods, there are measures we can take that will pay off in the next two to three decades.”

Watersheds Connect Us All

Watersheds are essential for life. They carry and filter water from sources as varied as rainfall, snowmelt, and car washes from higher ground to lower ground.

But because water infrastructure within our watersheds are out of sight, it can be difficult to impress on people just how vital they are to daily life, Shrodes says. “I try to put it visually: When you turn on the faucet, where does that come from? And people usually say: I don't know! That allows me to open up a conversation about our imported water supplies in Los Angeles, and how that is increasingly problematic due to challenges like climate change.”

Increasing Climate Resiliency

To protect impaired water systems and prepare for recurring cycles of drought, wildfire, and flooding, Heal the Bay promotes nature-based solutions like bioswales, for example. These channels are designed to slow down, capture, and infiltrate stormwater runoff while removing debris and pollution. Such “green infrastructure” can be smartly incorporated in urban areas that experience higher temperatures (known as the heat island effect). “You can lower a neighborhood’s temperature—and improve the neighborhood overall—just by having some more green space, and by planting trees that both capture water and provide cooling shade,” Shrodes says.

Nature's Buffer Systems

As a member of the steering committee of LA County’s Safe, Clean Water Program, Shrodes helps promotes the capture, filtration, and reuse of stormwater, protecting beaches and waterways from trash and contaminants and modernizing the infrastructure of an aging water system. Across the array of strategies to build resiliency for a future shaped by climate change, wetlands are one of the best buffers, she says. “In California, only around 10% of our wetlands are left, but they are enormously beneficial: they can absorb excess water volume that would otherwise overwhelm streams and rivers, helping to prevent flooding in surrounding areas while also cleaning the water through natural processes,” she says.

As an educator who has worked with Heal the Bay for a decade, Shrodes takes inspiration from the people she meets, from grade schoolers to Rotary Club members, who want to be part of the solution and share their energy, passion, and drive. “That eagerness and that excitement is recharging,” she says.

She is optimistic that progress will continue. “We used to have sewage that was flowing into Santa Monica Bay; there were dead zones, dolphins with fin rot,” she says. “The difference between now and then is dramatic. Now, if Heal the Bay’s out there on a beautiful day, cleaning the beach, people come by and say, ‘Things are so much better than they were in the ‘80s. Thank you for what you do.’”

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