Earlier this summer my son, Aaron, and I were traveling in the southern Midwest states. We expected hot weather, and that’s what we got, but the hottest temperature we experienced on our vacation was when we walked out of Sea-Tac Airport.
What’s going on with our weather? We have had lots of hot days this summer, following a warm winter with very little snow in the mountains. And, in recent weeks, there have been multiple wildfires in our state. Is this the new normal? If it is, we in the Pacific Northwest are in for substantial changes.
For over 35 years, I have worked on Nisqually River environmental issues, and this summer’s flow and stream temperatures are the worst I’ve seen. First, there was very little snow pack in the upper watershed. Snow, most years, acts as a natural storage reservoir, holding winter precipitation and releasing it slowly in the spring and summer. But not this year.
Also, stream temperatures have been very warm – in the high 60s recently. These high temperatures are a substantial threat to the salmon returning to the Nisqually River. Thousands of chinook, and hundreds of thousands of pink salmon, are due to return to the river this month and next. Warm water impacts salmon in many ways such as inhibiting migration, increasing vulnerability to predators, and warm conditions promote diseases that can kill salmon before they spawn.
On the Nisqually the fish and hydroelectric managers have taken steps to reduce the risks. First, Tacoma Power and Centralia City Light (the two Nisqually hydroelectric projects) have agreed to a flow management regime that keeps more water in Tacoma’s Alder reservoir, putting off the time when there is no water left in the reservoir to supplement flow.
Centralia agreed to cease operations completely for the months of August and September. This utility has the “water right” to force Tacoma to release extra water, and to divert water from the river. However, Centralia officials recognized that no one benefits from salmon dying before spawning and therefore they shut it down. I cannot over-emphasize how impressive this action is — a utility has given up its right to generate power in order to protect the Nisqually River and its salmon.
Fish-harvest managers have also made changes. The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife has limited fishing hours for sports fishing for chinook, thus limiting the handling of salmon during the warmest hours of the day. The Nisqually Tribe, for its part, has stopped operating its weir on the river — again, to avoid handling any fish. The tribe will use the weir for counting upstream migration, but will not trap or delay salmon.
This hot weather and low stream flows, and wildfire, is occurring to some degree in the entire Pacific Northwest. If this is just an aberrant year, then it is only an opportunity to practice adaptive management to mitigate extreme circumstances.
I am convinced, however, that what we are experiencing is only giving us a taste of what will be the new normal once the impacts of climate change and global warming become more fully established. For electric rate payers in Centralia (and all of us, of course) it means less home-grown generation and more purchasing of expensive power from Bonneville Power Administration — assuming that source of power continues to be abundantly available.
For salmon fishermen — sport, commercial and treaty-right — it means less productivity from our streams and rivers. Salmon are cold-water species, and within our lifetimes we well may see continued decline of these species due to global climate change.
For wildfire, it likely means continuing substantial loss of valuable timber lands and ongoing risk of property loss to rural residents, especially in Eastern Washington.
I’m not smart enough, I suspect, to know all we should be doing to address climate change. But here are two things I do know. First, climate change is real! It is already with us, to some extent, and is coming toward us at an increasing pace.
Second, doing nothing is irresponsible and just plain wrong. Our elected officials are the caretakers of our resources and our future. The Legislature this past session did nothing to address climate change. The Republican legislators seem especially reluctant to take action.
But, really, the inaction charge falls on all of us. We need to demand that climate change be addressed aggressively. If not, I suspect that our children — and certainly their children — will be asking: “What were you thinking? Why didn’t you act before it was too late?”
George Walter is the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s environmental program manager and a member of The Olympian’s 2015 Board of Contributors. He can be reached at email@example.com.