Washington drought-free? Don't let the rain fool you

Guest Opinion: With climate change looming, Washington cannot ignore the water challenges it will face.
The Yakima River in eastern Washington.

The Yakima River in eastern Washington. Peter Stevens

When it's drizzly in Western Washington, it’s hard to worry about drought. It would appear we have plenty of water for drinking, farming, fish and recreation. But elsewhere, climate change is bringing drought and threats to our food supply. A devastating drought in the south and southwest has rivers running dry, jeopardizing farms, livestock, industries and communities. Despite our ubiquitous drizzle, the Evergreen State must pay attention to the increasing threat of water shortage and take action to ensure future supplies.

Healthy forests are the key to plentiful water in our state. Forests trap snow and rain, feeding clean water into rivers. The Cedar River watershed, where more than 90,000 acres of forest are preserved thanks to the foresight of leaders more than 50 years ago, is the primary source of clean water for the City of Seattle. It’s a great example of how a forest can hold, filter and release water for people, animals, fish, agriculture and industry.

But across Eastern Washington, many forests are unhealthy, choked with underbrush, at risk of extreme fire and disease, and less able to store snow pack and water. Forest restoration will take on increased importance if, as scientists predict, we begin to experience less snow pack and more rain in the mountains. Healthy, restored forests are much better able to capture and contain the increased rain than forest damaged by overuse or poor conservation practices.

Collaborative watershed and forest restoration groups play a critical role in creating healthy forests and rivers. Together local communities, governments, tribes, conservationists and commercial interests work to create win-win solutions that help people, wildlife, agriculture, fish and communities, creating resiliency in the face of climate change.

The Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan, for example, represents a remarkable collaboration between farmers, tribal members, government entities and industry leaders. The plan is big and long term: $4 to $5 billion over 30 years to protect forests, create more efficient irrigation and water transport, enhance fish passage and habitat, and increase storage capacity.

This work across the mountains matters to all of us, as the water protected by this plan flows into the Yakima Valley’s multi-billion dollar agriculture industry and into the Columbia River. All who worked together on this plan deserve credit for their proactivity, innovation and cooperation in creating a water plan that serves as a model for others.

This morning, the House Capital Budget Committee will convene to explore our future water needs, the status of our water infrastructure and what should be done to assure our water needs are met. The Legislature has already taken some important steps to secure water, but there is much more to be done. While other states are already struggling with drought, our state is positioned right now to create systems that assure resiliency.

The work of state leaders, collaborative groups modeling successful conservation and restoration, and integrated water plans are all signs of progress, but they are just a start.

It’s going to take increased cooperation, innovation, science and passion to assure adequate water for people, agriculture, fish and wildlife in our state. As the impacts of climate change become apparent, and as we watch other states deal with the impacts of drought, it’s time to focus on drought resilience. We must work together now to restore forests, adapt to change and create systems that assure plentiful water for people, fish and wildlife.

Michael S. Stevens is the Director of The Nature Conservancy in Washington.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, May 13, 10:17 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm a skeptic. Many of those eastern Washington farmers still use antiquated water irrigation systems - wasting a lot of water. Nor has the legislature made any progress about addressing Washington's water laws; he who had it first, gets it, regardless of whether it's highest or best use. In addition, the author fails to mention the major water quality issues here - already the nitrates in the water in that area exceed safe levels for children and pregnant women, thanks to overuse of fertilizers.

But a fundamental objection is about the money. The author says $4 billion to $5 billion - as if the difference is a dollar - not a billion dollars!! This project is a high priority for Eastern Washington - with nods to 'statewide benefits.' Really? How much real, tangible benefit will be derived from the project - the author does not say, just the value of collaboration, etc. That's a lot of money to spend to get along.

It's rather shocking that this article, extolling the benefits of one of the biggest public spending projects in the state's history, doesn't once address what that amount of money buys - except for better relations between farmers, tribes and conservationists.

To say nothing about the fact that if this amount of money were on the table for a west-side project - like transit or freight mobility - you'd hear a lot of howls from Eastern Washington legislators.

Saratoga

Posted Wed, May 14, 8:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Washington's water law's guiding principle is a great example of "hedonic lag," the hanging on to notions that over time become outdated.

oldgaloot

Posted Tue, May 13, 1:24 p.m. Inappropriate

If you know anything about the Yakima Integrated Resource Plan you know it is a vast improvement in water resource planning and includes upgrades for more efficient water conveyance, purchasing back of water rights, and upgrades to a number of facilities that will produce more efficient water use. It also includes a wide range of forest preservation items working with a number of NGOs, Tribes, and agencies.

A recent example is the purchase of the Teanaway Community Forest, a 50,000 acre forest purchased to preserve the water holding capacity in the basin - among other forest values. Yea, I'm sure there's quite a lot of improvement needed but environmentalists and ecologists who worked on this - and reviewed it - look at it as a step in the right direction. Needless to say, water resource management in the arid west is a difficult issue.

Treker

Posted Wed, May 14, 7:47 a.m. Inappropriate

What happens to Water availability when forests are denuded?
What happens to water availability when more and more of it is polluted?
What happens when availability of water is diminished as human consumption increases.
Are there limits to population growth? In this state? In this country?
What constitutes about 90 percent of our population growth?
Answer: illegal and legal immigration.
What do our legislators reward, over and over again? Illegal immigration while pushing for ever-more legal immigration. Are they concerned about potential water problems? With ecological integrity? With unsustainability?

Posted Wed, May 14, 9:12 a.m. Inappropriate

Does this include Godzilla? Agreed he would wreck havoc on Ellensburg.

Treker

Posted Sat, May 17, 11:11 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree with you, but what can we do here in Washington? It's a matter of Federal policy, and immigration reform is going nowhere. Besides, even if we turned off the light in the Statue of Liberty and stopped letting anyone else in, there'd still be plenty of internal migration from California and elsewhere, and that's only going to get worse with the current drought.

DannyK

Posted Wed, May 14, 7:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Water and good soil, one without the other usually leads to trouble, and a desire to acquire the one lacking.

Djinn

Posted Wed, May 14, 10:34 a.m. Inappropriate

We have to prepare for the future but it would be helpful to the reader to explain just why our forests, "... choked with underbrush, at risk of extreme fire and disease, and less able to store snow pack and water" actually have a diminished capacity for water and snow storage. It is not immediately apparent why that should be the case.

kieth

Posted Wed, May 14, 9:10 p.m. Inappropriate


Every national park pretty much fits that description. Lots of them burn but nobody cares, but get outside of a national park and the gloves come off. There are million of acres of timberlands every year at risk. It is a forest and they do burn. So when someone says "choked with underbrush, at risk of extreme fire and disease..." they're stating the obvious, but pretending it's not the norm.

Djinn

Posted Wed, May 14, 11:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Sigh http://www.cof.orst.edu/cof/fe/watershd/fe538/SnowHydrologyModule/storck_et_al_snow_interception_WRR02.pdf

Treker

Posted Wed, May 14, 4:40 p.m. Inappropriate

Your link goes to a UW forestry study about tree CANOPY effect on snow "sublimation" in "maritime climates" (not the subject Mr. Stevens' article). I could not find undergrowth or brush mentioned in the study. The study concludes that, ".. Snow interception by mature canopies exerts strong controls on beneath-canopy snow accumulation in maritime climates". It does not say that ground absorption of the snow is affected in one way or another.

kieth

Posted Wed, May 14, 4:50 p.m. Inappropriate

The need for upgrading irrigation practices, covering the canals to reduce evaporation and increasing the number of reservoirs is becoming even more important with global warming. In order to be prepared, the water supply must be increased and stabilized. With more of the precipitation falling as rain instead of snow, there will be less water recharging the existing reservoirs during the summer. Instead, it will be flowing right into the ocean because we don't have enough reservoir capacity to catch and retain the precipitation unless a substantial amount of it falls as snow. If the snowpack is less because it doesn't get cold enough, even with the same amount of precipitation, there won't be enough snow melt supplementing the reservoirs for agricultural purposes over the course of the summer. Immigration is a red herring and improved water practices will not just help a handful of eastern Washington farmers. Healthy farms benefit the entire state, bringing in tax revenue, providing jobs and food. And if nothing else, they provide wineries and breweries with the ingredients for beer and wine. And I think more beer and wine is drunk on the west side of the mountains than the other side. If nothing else, we must support these efforts so we can drink cheaper beer!

cutacross

Posted Sat, May 17, 11:08 a.m. Inappropriate

Climate change models predict more rain, but in periodic downpours, and less snowpack. So I think it's entirely plausible that Washington will have both more flooding and summer water shortages. I suspect we'll see water wars here in this state similar to the conflicts in California and the Southwest.

I'm skeptical of water megaprojects, because there are plenty of examples in the US and abroad of giant water projects that are now failing -- look at Nevada, there's giant infrastructure there that is nearly useless because there's no water in the system. Lake Meade is shrinking so fast they're digging new tunnels to suck the remaining water from the very bottom, like a little kid sucking the last of his milkshake out of the cup with his straw.
http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/03/las_vegas_water_conservation_it_s_a_mirage.html

DannyK

Posted Sun, May 18, 12:17 a.m. Inappropriate

The key here is "$4 to $5 billion." Big trough. Lots of "progressive" pigs. The rest is mere detail.

NotFan

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