Category Archives: Impacts & Adaptation

Are There More Multiyear Snow Droughts in Our Future?

By Adrienne Marshall

Hiker in a high elevation area, with a small lake and ridges with patchy snow in the background

Late May in the Sierra Nevadas in 2015, a low snowpack year that enabled spring recreation in the high country. Photo: Darren Bagnall.

As an environmental scientist, I’ve done plenty of hiking in the western U.S., always with a map, water bottle and list of water sources. In dry areas it’s always smart to ration water until you get to a new source. Sometimes a stream has dried up for the season, or a pond is too scummy to drink from, so your supply has to stretch further than planned. On one memorable hike, I found that a water source was dry. The next one, three miles later, was dry too. And the one after that had a dead bear carcass in it. While one dry water source was tolerable, several in a row created a serious problem.

Something similar is happening to snow resources in the western United States. Scientists have long known that the warming temperatures associated with climate change are diminishing the region’s snowpack, with more precipitation falling as rain, rather than snow. That’s a problem because snowpack is a critical resource, acting as a natural reservoir that stores winter precipitation. Are we likely to face several low snowpack years in a row? Continue reading

Check it out: New Studies in the Region Discuss Wildfires in the Future and How Fuel Treatments May Affect Them

By Sonia A. Hall

Fire burning up a shrub steppe slope, with a conifer tree in the foreground

The lightning-sparked Carlton Complex Fire in July was the largest in the state’s recorded history, burning 256,108 acres and destroying 322 residences. Photo and caption: Washington Department of Natural Resources, on Flickr, under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Pacific Northwesterners, especially those of us living and breathing in the inland Northwest, expect wildfires every summer. It’s not about if, but about when, where, and how severe they will be, both in forest and rangeland landscapes. As with many other aspects of natural resource management, climate change continues to add a layer of complexity and uncertainty both in terms of the patterns of fire expected in the future, and in terms of the response of land managers. The USDA’s Northwest Climate Hub’s April 2020 newsletter highlighted the findings of two scientific articles that are addressing questions around future patterns in wildfires and what can be done to prepare. Continue reading

How Can Long-Term Water Storage Management Mitigate Problems in an Era of Water Resource Deficits?

Mengqi Zhao, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Washington State University

Set of containment structures filled with water, an aquifer recharge area

Figure 1. Managed Aquifer Recharge, like this example for the Merti aquifer shared between Kenya and Somalia, can help provide additional water in periods of water scarcity. The photo is from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. (IGAD).

The 2015 drought caused more than $700 million in economic losses across Washington State. Even with current water storage management, both in places where rivers, lakes, and reservoirs generally provide sufficient water and in places where aquifers are the most stable water resource across seasons, extreme drought still impacted our economy. While droughts may impact different places with varying intensity, the risk of long-term water scarcity is greater when aquifers provide water today at the expense of tomorrow’s supply. As the region faces population increases and increasing competition for water resources to provide environmental value and economic value, the risk may increase further. So what water management options can help us mitigate the impacts of drought in the future?

In our region, we are experienced in using surface reservoirs as buffers between the naturally variable water cycle and the relatively more consistent agricultural water demand. The less visible buffer underground has often been ignored. Yet interest is growing, as aquifers may also be a useful reservoir over the long term, if managed sustainably. Our research team is evaluating managed aquifer recharge (MAR), an approach that stores water in the aquifer during the snowmelt season, allowing users to pump it for irrigation during periods of water scarcity (Figure 1). We have been asking questions about how to recharge aquifer systems to optimally achieve both short-term usage and long-term water supply sustainability. Imagine that the amount of water recharged into the aquifer becomes your future available MAR entitlement to pump up when needed. The more water that recharges the aquifer, the more effective the MAR will be in mitigating drought impacts. We are interested in answering specific questions, such as ‘What timing of recharge and infiltration area would have been needed for managed aquifer recharge to provide an effective buffer against the 2015 drought?’ or ‘How effective is managed aquifer recharge for maintaining sustainable water supply during single-year drought or even multi-year droughts?’ Continue reading

Check it out: Protecting Water from the Impacts of Wildfire… Are There Other Advantages?

By Sonia A. Hall

Firefighter looking back to a surface fire under a pine canopy, surrounded by smoke.

A recent report describes how wildfire risk reduction projects can have rippling economic effects across a community. Photo: Gila National Forest under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Being involved in FireEarth, a large research project exploring what makes communities more or less vulnerable to the impacts of wildfire and its cascading consequences, I am really interested in the complexity of impacts and, just as important, what communities, agencies, and other organizations can do to reduce their vulnerabilities. It is not unusual for the initial hypothesis associated with these questions to be that wildfire risk reduction projects in the watershed upstream and around a community have costs associated with them, and we need to understand those costs—as well as the targeted risk reduction benefits that such projects provide—to make sound investment decisions. Now recent work published by the US Geological Survey and partners explores other advantages of such projects: Continue reading

An Integrated View of Water Vulnerability Across the Northwest

By Paris Edwards, USDA Northwest Climate Hub

Water systems across the Northwest sustain crops, livestock, ecosystems, people and power production. These highly managed, interconnected networks of rivers, reservoirs, canals, and pipelines are economic mainstays for the region, and play a foundational role in food and energy security and sustaining natural resource livelihoods.

Top photo shows a large city with a snowcapped mountain in the background. The bottom picute shows rolling hills, with stripes of brown earth or green crops, with a town in the middle.

Figure 1. Water vulnerability depends on a combination of hydrology and social resilience. Densely populated subbasins (top photo) face contrasting challenges to sparsely populated and highly agricultural subbasins (bottom photo). Differences may include precipitation variability and dominance of low-elevation snowpack, economic dependence on natural resources, and poverty rates. Photos: Top – Portland, Oregon, Wikipedia user Truflip99 under CC BY-SA 4.0; Bottom – A town in the Palouse, Washington, Lynn Suckow under CC BY-SA 2.0.

However, climate change has begun to challenge water resources by increasing temperatures, decreasing snowpack, and altering the timing and amount of available water (Regonda et al. 2005). Current water management systems are designed around historical norms and trends that are rapidly becoming outdated, due to increasing climate variability and uncertainty about future resources. As a region, we now have to reconsider how best to plan around and adapt to expected change in order to reduce and avoid negative consequences to the overall food-energy-water system and to community well-being. But where is such adaptation planning particularly urgent? We synthesized data from across the Northwest to answer this question. Continue reading

Greenhouse Production of Vegetables: Implications for the Region

By Fidel Maureira, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Biological Systems Engineering, Washington State University

Dense rows of pepper plants in a greenhouse, on either side of a set of rails

Figure 1. Greenhouse production facility for bell peppers. Photo: Fidel Maureira.

Greenhouse agricultural production currently accounts for 1 to 2% of the agricultural production in the Unites States, but is rapidly growing. The value of this greenhouse production has increased 44% in the last years, and the number of operators has gone up by 71%. Large retailers have a significant interest in this technology, given the benefits of consistency in quality, flavor, and production volume, the potential for year-round supply, consumer preferences for local supply, and the perception that greenhouse production can be more sustainable than traditional production, with more efficient use of resources. New, larger, commercial operations tend to be concentrated around bigger cities to satisfy those local needs. This trend is true in other parts of the world as well, including neighboring Canada. What would greenhouses mean in the Pacific Northwest, if they are broadly adopted?

Continue reading

Exploring Whether Washington State Could Become the New California in Vegetable Production

By Fidel Maureira, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Biological Systems Engineering, Washington State University

Climate variability and change—rising temperatures, more frequent heat waves, drought, less snowpack, pests and diseases, wildfires, and the resulting over-use of resources such as groundwater—are creating critical agricultural production risks for California, the leading vegetable and fruit producing area of the United States. These issues are projected to get worse in the future. In contrast, climate change-related challenges in the Columbia River Basin are projected to be less extreme and there is potential for a more favorable climate for certain agricultural products, providing the Columbia River Basin with relative competitive advantages over California. Can the irrigated areas of Washington State supplement some of the expected losses in vegetable production in California? The answer is not clear yet, but we are exploring the implications of increasing vegetable production in the Basin, using climate change projections and models that quantify how regional hydrology and crops would respond to those climatic changes (Figure 1).

Diagram showing expected changes in vegetable production and certain crops expected in the future, in Washington and California

Figure 1. Vegetable production in California will suffer a reduction in total production because of rising temperatures effects on vegetables and a higher risk of water shortages. In contrast, Washington will show positive conditions in mid-century for growing crops and good supply of water. Can the irrigated areas of Washington State supplement some of the expected losses in vegetable production in California? This could be a beginning of new vegetable production in irrigated areas of Washington. Footnotes refer to references, below.

Continue reading

We Need to Know if Stormwater Runoff in Near-Urban Agricultural Areas Impacts Soil or Plant Health

By Jordan Jobe, Master of Environmental Management,  Washington State University-Puyallup

view of field by a road, with houses and buildings in the far background

The Puyallup Watershed in Washington State has dozens of family farms pinned between townhomes, traffic-dense roads, commuter train tracks, and industrial sites. Photo: Jordan Jobe.

As farmland in the Puyallup Watershed increasingly finds itself pinned between townhomes, traffic-dense roads, commuter train tracks, and industrial sites, it seems important to be aware of unintended impacts on agricultural viability. Today, the Puyallup River floodplain is used in a variety of ways, including residential housing, commercial and industrial uses, salmon habitat (including restoration and mitigation sites), and agricultural production. The floodplain has fertile, rich soil and is home to dozens of farms growing mixed vegetable row crops.

The Puyallup Watershed has around 14,000 acres of active agricultural production, including dozens of family farms in these fertile floodplain areas. However, as land prices skyrocket and development occurs, farmers often have to face difficult decisions about what to do with their land. Continue reading

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