This article is part of Ask Umbra’s guide on How to Build a Flood-Resilient Community. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
David Haakenson thinks about water a lot. That’s because the farm he owns in western Washington experiences frequent, catastrophic floods. And climate change is making that trend worse.
“We had floods in October. We had floods in November, December, January, February, and March,” said Haakenson, the owner of Jubilee Farm. “There’s this kind of anxiety that involves — like, when you look out on the field and say, ‘Wow, I make my living off that field and now it’s a lake.’”
To protect Jubilee Farm, Haakenson is looking to an unlikely ally: Beavers. Because it turns out, beavers might actually offer some real protection against climate impacts like flooding and wildfires — if people can learn to live with them.
Farmers and beavers don’t often get along. Even Haakenson has had his share of conflicts with the local family of beavers who regularly turn his field into what he calls “Lake Jubilee.”
“The beavers have their goal in life and I have my goal in life,” Haakenson said. “My job is to farm and there is some friction there. But if I were to remove the beavers, more beavers would just come over because it is like a beaver paradise.”
Beavers have lived in North America for more than 7 million years. Until recently, the United States was home to a staggering number of them: Somewhere between 60 million and 400 million. That means for millions of years, North America looked completely different. It was a country covered in swamps, from the Arctic Circle to the deserts of the U.S. Southwest.
But by the end of the 1800s, everything had changed. Fur trappers hunted beavers to near extinction – and without them, American ecosystems completely changed. So when most of modern America was built, beavers weren’t really on anyone’s radar.
“It was all without beavers in mind. Without thinking about how they could affect our infrastructure, our roads, our yards, our driveways, our homes, our farms,” said Jen Vanderhoof, a senior ecologist for King County in Washington state. “They weren’t here. And we didn’t have to think about them.”
But in the last few decades, beaver populations have started to rebound — only to a fraction of their previous levels, but enough to cause trouble when they flood properties, wash away roads, or chew up trees.
“People are always like, ‘We didn’t used to have beaver problems,’ or ‘We didn’t used to have beavers and never saw beavers here before,’” said Vanderhoof. “But things are changing and they’re not going away at this point.”
“A lot of people get kind of irate about beaver dams, because beavers have one joy in life: and that is stopping water,” said Haakenson. “They probably have other ones. I’m sure they lead rich inner lives. But they really like stopping water from flowing.”
Now, as rising global temperatures make rainstorms more intense and frequent, Haakenson thinks that beavers’ ability to stop water might be able to actually help his farm.
To understand how that might work, let’s take a trip to a hypothetical creek. Like a lot of creeks, it’s just a single narrow channel. During winter storms, water rushes downstream. During summer, the creek dries up to a trickle. Climate change is making those floods and droughts even more extreme.
But here’s what happens if a beaver moves in: The beaver builds a dam, and water starts to back up into a pond. During a flood, a lot of that water can get stored in the pond, and in the soil underneath the pond, where it permeates through the ground and eventually comes out downstream. During summer droughts, when everything on the surface is usually dried up, there’s still water stored in the ground under the beaver pond, creating a lush oasis in an otherwise dry landscape.
An oasis that can even stand up to wildfire. One recent study looked at five streams that were hit by wildfires, comparing damage in areas with and without beaver dams. In every single case, the stream sections with beaver dams experienced only a third of the fire damage. All this matters, because climate change is contributing to more severe droughts, fires, and flooding, and beavers can help communities with those problems, just by doing what they do.
Take the Snoqualmie River, which regularly floods David Haakenson’s farm. It starts high in the Cascade Mountains, fed largely by melting alpine snow. But a warming climate is changing that. Storms are starting to deliver less snow and more rain — rain that rushes downstream during storms, and floods the river valley below. And flooding in the valley is probably only going to get worse.
“I feel like it’s going to be the thing that eventually the farm will go under because of – flood water,” Haakenson said. “The flooding is getting worse. The beavers might actually be able to help with that.”
One study estimated that on the Snoqualmie River, more beaver dams upstream could help store over 6,000 Olympic swimming pools worth of water.
On his farm, Haakenson keeps an eye on the dam, trying to keep it from overtaking his field. But beyond that, he pretty much lets the beavers do their thing.
“There’s kind of two ways to approach nature, and one is to fight it and the other one is to try to figure out how to coexist,” Haakenson said.
As beaver populations return, more people are following that strategy: Using tools like pond levelers or fences to protect the things that matter to them, but also letting beavers be when they’re not hurting anyone.
Americans are used to a world without beavers, but that’s changing, whether we like it or not.
Sure, beavers can be frustrating. But if we can learn to get along with these giant aquatic rodents, they might even turn out to be helpful neighbors.