Category Archives: Impacts & Adaptation

How Global Change May Impact the Food, Energy, and Water Sectors in the Columbia River Basin

By Matt Yourek, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Washington State University

Global-scale changes—economic, sociological, climatological—have important ramifications for local communities. For example, land-use change alters the balance of food, energy, and water resources within a basin. The research group I am part of is interested in understanding the future impact of land-use change in the Columbia River Basin. This requires first understanding how land use is expected to change, and then exploring the impacts of these changes on the different sectors.

Future changes in the Columbia River Basin

Tractor and mower moving away, leaving a row of cut grass

Figure 1. Harvesting switchgrass with disc mower. Photo from Farm-Energy, April 3, 2019 (https://farm-energy.extension.org/switchgrass-panicum-virgatum-for-biofuel-production/).

The Global Change Assessment Model (GCAM) simulates supply and demand of fuel and agro-forestry commodities at the national level under a set of standardized greenhouse gas emission scenarios known as representative concentration pathways (RCPs). In the model, markets in food and fuel determine how land use changes. Biofuel is among the industries expected to benefit from low carbon emission policies (Figure 1). To be meaningful within the Columbia River Basin, the broad-scale changes in land use for biofuels and other crops must be disaggregated to a finer scale. Continue reading

No-Regrets Strategies that Benefit Ranching Operations and Provide Climate Resilience

By Georgine Yorgey

Ranchers already manage multiple risks—including those related to economics, production, the environment, and weather. Climate change represents an added risk, but one that is challenging to manage because impacts are uncertain, variable over space and time, and often perceived as being only of concern in the distant future (Leiserowitz et al. 2011).

Cattle grazing open rangeland, with forested hills and mountains in the background

Cattle grazing is the main productive activity in the high desert and dry forest landscape of the Bear Valley, near Seneca, Oregon, where our most recent resilience case study is focused. Photo: Jack and Teresa Southworth.

However, despite this challenge, there is a growing recognition that the same strategies that make ranches and rangelands more resilient to climate change will also provide other important co-benefits. These include enhanced resilience to current weather-related variability, enhanced ecological functioning, and in at least some cases, enhanced or more sustainable economic performance.

Implementing these “no-regrets” strategies is thus important for enhancing the resilience of rangelands to a wide variety of shocks including, but not limited to, climate change. Continue reading

Check it out: “Skeptical Science” a Climate Science Resource for Extension Professionals

By Chris Schnepf

Screen shot showing a list of 6 climate myths and "what the science says" response links.

The Skeptical Science website outlines nearly 200 common climate change myths, and summarizes scientific responses to each assertion, with links to cited research. Screen shot from https://skepticalscience.com/argument.php.

One of the biggest challenges facing extension professionals is how to address climate change, especially in the context of people asking questions or making assertions that challenge climate science. Many of these questions have some kind of “gotcha” premise or multi-layered assumptions which must be pulled out and addressed individually to respond.

These kinds of questions are difficult to deal with even on comparatively simple topics like managing a specific insect pest, but they are even more challenging in an arena as complex as climate change, especially since many extension educators do not have as much depth of training as they do in a specific discipline such as agronomy or forestry.  Continue reading

Climate Adaptation: USDA Programs and Resources That Can Help

By Paris Edwards, Haley Case-Scott, and Holly R. Prendeville, USDA Northwest Climate Hub

Rural landscape showing flooded fields, roads, and buildings

Figure 1. Drone photo of highway 34 closed near Corvallis, Oregon. 11 April, 2019. Photo: Oregon Department of Transportation under CC BY 2.0.

Whether you are reading the news or talking with your community, the number of stories about how climate change and its impacts affect daily life and business across the Northwest, the United States, and the world is growing. Recently, there have been a number of extreme weather events in the Northwest. In January 2019, central Washington was hit by a blizzard that devastated dairy farmers. In April, Oregon rivers, including the Willamette and Santiam, reached flood stages that caused debris flows, pollution, and lead to evacuations throughout Eugene (Figure 1). Boise, Idaho experienced record rainfall between January and May this year, which contributed to grass growth throughout the region and raised concerns about an increase in wildland fire potential. Fortunately, cooler temperatures prevailed, resulting in a relatively mild wildland fire season and a break from smoke for Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Although it isn’t always clear if a particular event is due to climate change, more frequent and extreme weather occurrences are expected. These current events, alongside disasters of the recent past, highlight what we can expect to see more often in the future, given the predicted increases in flooding, extreme heat events, drought, and wildfire. Such events give added urgency to the need for efforts to reduce negative impacts and support resilience (Jay et al., 2019). Yet it is challenging for producers and natural resource managers to find the resources they need to do so. Continue reading

What Specialty Crops Might Thrive in the Northwest in the Future?

By Lauren Parker, University of California, Davis (formerly University of Idaho)

Closeup of blueberry plants, with fruit

Figure 1. Blueberries, a crop that has seen rapid growth in the Northwest recently. Photo: Jacqui Osbourne under CC BY-NC 2.0.

From Washington apple orchards to Oregon blueberry fields and Idaho’s burgeoning vineyards, the Northwest is well-known for its agricultural abundance (Figure 1). Specialty crop production across the three states is a multi-billion dollar enterprise and, like virtually all agricultural systems across the region, will be challenged by climate change (Houston et al. 2018).

Climate change is also projected to impact California specialty crop production (Lobell et al. 2006), lowering yields of some crops and perhaps entirely eliminating the production of others. As warming temperatures reshape where the climate is suitable for perennial crops in California, some specialty crop growers in cooler regions like the Northwest may benefit. Continue reading

The Modern Apple Orchard: What Does It Entail?

By Antoinette Avorgbedor, Intern at Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center and the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources

Small apple trees in a v-trellis system, with bare soil around the line of trees

There has been a steady increase in orchards planted with sparsely branched, thin trees at increased tree planting densities. Photo: Washington State Department of Agriculture under CC BY-NC 2.0.

I have been curious as to why apple trees in modern, commercial orchards don’t look like the cartoon drawing that I grew up seeing with a thick trunk and a wide, round canopy of leaves. Modern tree fruit orchards are planted with a goal of maximizing efficiency and productivity. Mechanized operations are ideal for high-value, large operations to increase profitability. Consequently, there has been a steady increase in sparsely-branched thin trees that are usually more simply pruned. These planting systems are accompanied by increased tree planting densities. Over the last 50 years, densities have increased from 40 trees/acre to in some cases more than 3,000 trees/acre. There are many benefits to this new system of orchard management, but not without a cost to producers. The question is, will the balance of benefits and costs change as the climate changes? Continue reading

Exploring the Frontier of Improved Soil Health in Potato Production in the Columbia Basin

By Athena Loos, Field Representative, McCain FoodsText linking soil health and climate change, and link to a previous article on the topic

During the 3.5 years that I have worked with growers in my role as a Field Representative with McCain Foods, I have met numerous growers who are playing an active role in exploring the biological component of soil health. (Growers generally have a good understanding of the chemical and physical characteristics of our soils.) One of my graduate projects was focused on soil health in the Columbia Basin, which allowed me to gain knowledge on this topic and have these discussions with growers. Farmers essentially are among the most committed environmentalists. The last thing they want to do is ruin the soil they depend on for their livelihood. If you ask around the Basin, you will find that land has been passed on through generations. This is a big motivation for growers to improve soil health; soil is a bank account for future generations.

Continue reading

Check it out: Measuring Water Use Rather Than Water Diversions

By Sonia A. Hall

Small dam diverting water from a river into an irrigation canal

Irrigation dam and diversion in Idaho. Photo: Mark Plummer under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

There is a difference between the amount of water diverted from streams and rivers to irrigate crops, and the amount of water consumptively used in those irrigated fields, which includes what the crops actually transpire, plus what evaporates from these fields. The difference is sometimes called return flow, as it percolates through the soil and becomes available for use further downstream (this earlier article has a diagram that reflects that, so take a look).

Decisions about water allocation and water use in the Pacific Northwest are mostly made based on diversions, because that’s what we can measure, using water meters for example. But when we discuss whether more efficient irrigation technology should be used, or ways to reduce conflicts between out-of-stream and instream water needs, consumptive use—the water used by crops and lost to evaporation—is also really important. Check out this article on METRIC, a method using remote sensing to measure water consumption in Idaho. And take a look at the 2016 Columbia River Forecast for a pilot application of METRIC in Washington State, work that is currently being expanded with support from the US Department of Agriculture as part of the Washington State University led Technology for Trade project. What do you think would be the benefits of having this technology available across the Columbia River Basin? Take a minute to comment below. And stay tuned for more on METRIC as this research progresses.

Are Efficient Irrigation Technologies a Winning Solution in the Yakima River Basin?

By Keyvan Malek, Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University

In an earlier AgClimate.net article I discussed studies that have looked into the effects of investments in efficient irrigation technology on other water-related sectors. I argued that many studies have concluded that such investments might have negative implications for other water users, such as farmers or energy producers. I also mentioned that we were studying this issue, and promised to report our findings. This article and our soon-to-be-published paper deliver on that promise.

Why we did what we did 

Closeup of a drip irrigation line, with a drop of water falling onto soil covered with crop residue

Questions still remain around the impacts across a basin and for multiple water use sectors of more efficient irrigation systems, such as drip irrigation. Photo: Joby Elliott under CC BY 2.0.

Among agro-hydrologists—people who study the dynamics of water in agricultural systems—it is a widely accepted fact that one farmer’s investment in new, irrigation efficiency technologies negatively affects other farmers and sectors. However, questions remain, as past studies have not explicitly quantified the impacts of new irrigation systems on other sectors. What is the implication for overall agricultural productivity? How do efficient systems impact the ecological condition of the basin? How do energy production and demand change as people switch to more efficient systems? Are there any social implications? And do these productivity, ecological, and social implications change as the climate changes? Continue reading

Soil Health in Potato Production: Oxymoron or Opportunity?

By Karen Hills

A frequently used—at least, by soil scientists—definition for soil health is “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living system […] to sustain biological productivity, maintain the quality of air and water environments, and promote plant, animal, and human health” (Doran et al. 1996). Many different indicators—chemical, physical, and biological—are used to assess soil health.

Potato field with two harvesters and two trucks

Figure 1. Potatoes are economically important crops in many irrigated areas of the Pacific Northwest. Here, potatoes are harvested near Pasco, Washington. Photo: Athena Loos.

Growing potatoes is notoriously hard on the physical and biological health of soil (Figure 1). Potato production in many areas of the Pacific Northwest involves seven or more soil disturbance operations, leaves little residue on the field, and often involves the use of fumigants to control soilborne diseases. The economics of potato production often drive growers to utilize short rotations. But a suite of strategies are possible to improve soil health in potato production, including cover crops, rotating with perennial crops and crops that contribute high levels of residues, and incorporation of organic amendments. While growing green manure crops for biofumigation has probably achieved the most success and adoption in the region (see producer Dale Gies as an example), in this article I focus on a more challenging strategy that has received limited attention, but may have more direct climate change implications: tillage reduction. Continue reading