Real Impact of Climate Change

This winter was short, mild, and left many mountains bare that are normally snow-capped. In response to these conditions and the potential impact on water resources, Governor Jay Inslee declared drought in three regions across Washington State last month: the north Olympic Peninsula, a large region east of the Cascades, and the area around Walla Walla. For details on this decision, see the 2015 drought coverage and updates managed by the Department of Ecology.

Conditions are actively monitored in all of Washington’s watersheds in order to inform the management of water supplies. Knute Berger recently provided a good explanation  in Crosscut last week of why the low snowpack does not directly translate to low regional water supplies in all areas. With enough precipitation, low snowpack does not automatically lead to drought conditions—but rainfall is considerably more time consuming and difficult to manage than snow. The benefit of snowpack, from a water management perspective, is a reliable water source that naturally supplies the state’s water bodies with fresh water as it melts throughout the year. Rainfall, however, requires 24/7 management to sustain adequate supplies and avoid flooding.   



How is this affecting the ROSS watersheds?

Luckily, a drought was not declared for the watersheds in the Central Puget Sound, despite low snowpack throughout the region. Thanks to the rain and the tireless work of our region’s public utility workers, water supplies are not an immediate concern here. On April 7th, the state’s Water Supply Availability Committee found that in the Green-Duwamish and Cedar-Sammamish watersheds, snowpack is at a shocking 1% and 2% of the normal levels for this time of year. To the south, the Puyallup-White and Nisqually are experiencing higher levels of snowpack, but are only at 23% and 35% of the average for these watersheds.

While we are pleased that our region’s water supplies are presently adequate, the grassy hills that should be blanketed with snow are disconcerting. In his weather blog, Cliff Mass wrote in February that the winter 2014 looks a lot like what the winter of 2070 will be like.  As we plan for the future of our region, we must consider the likelihood that climate change will have a real impact on water availability which will affect everything from fish stocks, to agriculture, to wildfires, flooding and landslides, to the gardens in our yards. The watershed-based approach to planning championed here at the ROSS helps to ensure that we make investments which ensure the continued natural supplies of clean water, snow-packed fun, and scenic views that are foundational to the Northwest way of life.


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