A Review of Climate Change Research in the Columbia River Basin: Missing the Mark on Agriculture

By Paris Edwards

Stream through an alpine meadow, with a snowcapped mountain in the background

Headwater streams originate in mountainous areas and add critical snowmelt to summer and early fall stream flows. Slow and steady melt off of winter snowpack provides water during the dry season when crops need it most. Photo by Picasa, Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Our understanding of regional climate change effects today will be used to inform management, policy, and the new scientific endeavors of tomorrow. With this in mind, a team of doctoral students from the Water Resources Department at the University of Idaho in Moscow carried out a systematic review of all peer-reviewed studies through 2016 (550 of them) related to climate change in headwater regions of the Columbia River Basin. The purpose of the review was to explore what aspects of climate change impacts on water availability have been well studied, and where additional research is still needed (Marshall et al. 2020). We focused on mountain headwater regions because these critical water-generating areas are vulnerable to increasingly warm winter temperatures that contribute to snowpack losses and increased variability in the timing and volume of water available for multiple uses. Water availability supports values we care about and communities in our region, including irrigation; the future of irrigated agriculture in the Basin depends on water, and at least 20% of surface supply in the Basin is generated from melted snow. Continue reading

Pathways to Progress in Tackling Stormwater Runoff in Near-Urban Agricultural Areas

By Kevin Hyde, Puget Sound Partnership

Culvert draining into a pool of water with oily slick on the surface

Stormwater pollution impacts many of the things Puget Sound residents hold dear. Photo: Washington State Department of Ecology.

Stormwater runoff, particularly from roadways, is one of the leading sources of water pollution in Puget Sound. Stormwater pollution impacts people and ecosystems in different ways. Many of the things Puget Sound residents hold dear, like swimming along rivers and beaches, harvesting and eating shellfish, and fishing for salmon, are directly affected by stormwater pollution. The Puget Sound Partnership works with many groups to tackle this complex problem, and polluted stormwater runoff is a focus of the Toxics in Fish Implementation Strategy, a recovery plan that aims to reduce the levels and impacts of contaminants on Puget Sound aquatic life.

Jordan Jobe, with Washington State University Extension, points out in a recent article that stormwater pollution also has implications for local food systems and farmers. She highlights the need to better understand the impact of stormwater runoff on agricultural viability in near-urban agricultural areas, where it may impact soil health, or contaminate crops. Continue reading

Developing Biochar Markets in the Pacific Northwest

By Embrey Bronstad

This is part of a series highlighting work by Washington State University (WSU) researchers through the Waste to Fuels Technology Partnership between the Department of Ecology and WSU during the 2017-2019 biennium. This partnership advances targeted applied research and extension on emerging technologies for managing residual organic matter.

Biochar has the potential to provide a win-win for climate, soils, and forest health. Previous posts on AgClimate.net have discussed the effects of integrating biochar with composting facilities, engineering biochars for specific applications, and potential for biochar use in Washington to draw down carbon dioxide. The Pacific Northwest is particularly suited for a supporting a thriving biochar industry, both because of the ubiquity of waste woody biomass as a biochar production feedstock and the extensive agricultural acreage that could benefit from biochar application. Many researchers in the region have developed a library of evidence documenting the numerous benefits of biochar use.  So why aren’t more people producing and using it?

To increase adoption of any product, more than just the scientific benefits must be taken into consideration.  Markets have to be developed, which means knowing the minimum selling price at which biochar can be produced and the maximum purchase price potential buyers are willing to pay.  It also helps to know what the optimum application is for maximum return, for example, when are crop yields improved enough to justify the cost of putting biochar on the field?

The structure of the facility (left) and a front loader by a mound of chipped wood

Figure 1. A biomass power plant that has been modified for biochar production uses forest residues from areas of high fire hazard areas as feedstock. Photos: Josiah Hunt.

To this end, researchers from Washington State University sought to evaluate the potential market for biochar in the Pacific Northwest using techno-economic analyses that coupled both biochar production costs and agricultural returns for a number of crops. Continue reading

Forest infrastructure: Preparing for Future Needs

By Chris Schnepf

Precipitation has a large influence on forests and how they function. Forests, and how they are managed or disturbed, also have huge effects on streams that flow from them and all related stream benefits, from fisheries to irrigated agriculture.

Truck driving through a muddy drivable dip

Drivable dips are an excellent low-maintenance approach to quickly draining runoff from forest roads. Photo: C. Schnepf.

Because high water quality (low temperatures, low amounts of sediment) is such an important value of forest streams, extra care is taken in forest management to maintain that quality. People often presume that timber harvesting in and of itself is the greatest threat to water quality, mentally envisioning sediments eroding from harvested slopes. But generally, you do not get much erosion from the soil surface of a harvested area, unless the soils are intrinsically prone to slumping (those soils may slump regardless of harvesting). Even after a harvest, the tree root systems remain, and soils are further bound to the site by understory vegetation and high levels of organic matter.

The biggest threat to water quality is less the harvested surface than it is the surface of roads and skid trails used to access that timber. Continue reading

ANNOUNCEMENT – SOILCON, Washington’s Soil Health Week

Don’t forget to register for this upcoming event!

SoilCon logoWashington State University’s Soil Health Initiative with sponsorship from Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education will bring together soil experts from around the world to discuss soil health. This virtual event will occur during the week of February 8-12, 2021 with sessions from 9:30-11:00 AM and 1:00-2:30 PM (PST) each day.

Our understanding of soil health’s role in agro-ecosystem productivity, sustainability, and product quality is evolving. “SoilCon: Washington Soil Health Week” will bring together worldwide experts on soil health in an engaging virtual setting.

 Topics include:

  • Status of Soil Health in the United States and Washington State
  • Soil Health Indicators
  • Soil Health Specific to Washington’s Production Systems
  • Lessons Learned from Long-term Soil Health Research

These topics will be relevant to producers, consultants, agricultural professionals, University faculty and students, policy makers, conservation districts, and interested members of the general public.

Attendance is free and open to all.

 For more information and to register: https://pheedloop.com/wasoilcon/site/home/

 

 

Check it out: How does the Columbia Basin Fare as the Timing and Volume of Snowmelt Changes?

By Sonia A. Hall

A broad river, with snow covered mountain in the background.

The Columbia River is fed by snowmelt from surrounding mountains. These waters are used for irrigating crops, as well as other uses. Snowmelt patterns are expected to change across the world as the climate continues to warm. Photo: Flickr user jaisril under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It is not always easy to extract regionally-relevant conclusions from global studies, such as the one discussed in the August 2020 CIRCulator article “Irrigated Agriculture, Snowmelt, and Climate Change.” So though many of the irrigation-dependent crops studied are not typical to the Pacific Northwest, this article discusses research that synthesizes key risk factors—whether a basin is currently dependent on snowmelt for irrigation water; how far out of sync water supplies and agricultural demand will become; can a basin realistically find new ways to store water, replacing the snowpack’s storage capacity—into a snowmelt hazard index. Big, global picture: The Columbia River Basin is expected to do better than watersheds to the south and the east, but overall received what the CIRCulator article called “a middling-but-still-worrisome snow hazard scale rating,” putting it, interestingly enough, right “next to the Tigris/Euphrates Basin.” Check out the CIRCulator article for a lot more detail, or, if you have access through a library or subscription, delve into the actual publication in Nature Climate Change.

 

Reference: 

Qin, Y., Abatzoglou, J.T., Siebert, S., Huning, L.S., AghaKouchak, A., Mankin, J.S., Hong, C., Tong, D., Davis, S.J. and Mueller, N.D., 2020. Agricultural risks from changing snowmelt. Nature Climate Change, 10(5), pp.459-465. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0746-8

Good news! US Fruit and Vegetable Supply Chains Are Resilient

By David I. Gustafson, Ph.D., Adjunct Professor, Biological Systems Engineering Department, Washington State University

This is an opinion piece published in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin on December 13, 2020. We will be sharing further details on the results of this project through blog articles in 2021. Stay tuned!

Newspaper with this article's headline

Celebrating some good news for fruit and vegetable supply chains across the United States.

We’re all exhausted. As we near the end of what feels like the longest year of our lives, we’re now being told that we can’t enjoy the holiday season with loved ones. No more “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go.” Instead, it’s Uber Eats and Zoomsgiving.

We need some good news. Especially about food, which always makes the holidays that much more special. So I’m pleased to report on a current research effort which is generating good news about US fruit and vegetable supply chains, and which I reported on at a recent science conference. Continue reading

The National Extension Climate Initiative: Expanding opportunities for learning and sharing best practices

By Paul Lachapelle, Professor Montana State University

Collage of three articles from news outlets - The New York Times, Scientific American, BBC News - on the megadrought paper

Headlines following publication of Williams et al.’s 2020 paper describing a ‘megadrought’ that might be worse than any in 1,200 years.

Increasingly, the impacts associated with our changing climate are taking a dramatic toll on our communities, not only across the Pacific Northwest, but also around the world. In the western United States, we have experienced dramatic examples of climate-related impacts. A ‘Megadrought’ is reported to be emerging in the region that might be worse than any in 1,200 years, with half of this historic drought blamed on man-made global warming (Williams et al. 2020). Meanwhile, the worst heat in 70 years threatens to take down California’s grid (Aleem, 2020). According to Eilperin (2020), a cluster of counties on Colorado’s Western Slope and in eastern Utah have warmed more than 2° Celsius, which is double the global average and impacting the potential to produce, use, and export water. Agricultural, energy, forest, and aquatic systems are in many cases being impacted and stressed to the near breaking point for parts of the year or longer.

Extension professionals are recognizing the critical importance of reaching citizens with current and accurate information about the impacts of climate change and methods of adaptation and mitigation. Continue reading

Check it out: Is Climate Change or Forest Management Causing Megafires?

By Sonia A. Hall

Mountainous landscape with smoke billowing up from wildfires

The Bobcat Fire, one of 2020’s megafires that resurfaces the question of whether forest management or climate change is driving these fires.

In response to the recent—and in California, ongoing—megafires, many have been asking whether the cause is climate change or forest management. Erin Hanan wrote a blog article arguing that this is not the right question, because in many cases both contribute to what is happening. The drivers of fire activity are complex, and the relative importance of these different drivers varies from one location and ecosystem to another.

Check out Hanan’s article to explore the five key things we need to know about the causes of the current wildfire problem. Understanding these five things can help us navigate the question of what is driving increased fire activity and, most importantly, can help us determine what can be done to reduce such large fires in the future.

ANNOUNCEMENT – WSU launches water management survey in four Washington basins

Please share the following announcement with farmers you know growing irrigated crops in the Okanogan, Methow, Walla Walla, and Yakima river basins.

"Survey on Water Management in Washington State" header with photos of regionWSU launches water management survey in Okanogan, Methow, Walla Walla, Yakima basins

Do you have views about how water should be managed within your Basin?  We want to hear them!

Washington State University scientists and collaborators will survey owners of irrigated farms this winter in the Okanogan, Methow, Walla Walla, and Yakima river basins. Insights from irrigators will help researchers develop innovations to foster water use efficiency for Northwest residents, agriculture, and the environment.

We hope that over time, the results will help you by improving irrigated farming yields and increasing the value and security of water rights. The survey does not ask any questions that would put anyone’s water right at risk of relinquishment. All responses will be kept confidential.

How You Can Be Involved: 

Continue reading