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.
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The Yakima River in eastern Washington.

Guest Opinion: With climate change looming, Washington cannot ignore the water challenges it will face.

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.


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