Summer 2019 kicked off on an upbeat note for Washington hikers: our favorite mountain trails were snow-free weeks sooner than in previous years. But like schoolkids let loose unexpectedly early, we are wary of a catch. And there is a catch: it’s a drought.
The impacts of climate change will vary from nation to nation, state to state, and city to city. Here in Washington, climate change is expected to increase fire frequency and severity in our forested areas, temperatures will continue to rise, coastal flooding will increase, and our oceans will become more acidic. Learn more about how climate change not only affects our marine environments but also plays an significant role in our local and national economies. Explore the infographic below.
Inforgraphic created by Erica Simek Sloniker, GIS & Visual Communications
Written by Bob Carey, Strategic Partnerships Director
Maps by Erica Simek-Sloniker, Visual Communications
Floodplains by Design, a public-private partnership aimed at revolutionizing river management across Washington, came together in 2012 with the goal of making our communities safer and rivers healthier. It started as a concept: get the leaders of programs and interest groups that influence coastal and riverine floodplains out of their silos, have them work together to figure out how to manage these landscape in a collaborative, integrated fashion, and we’ll collectively do a better job of delivering society’s goals of reduced flooding, stronger salmon runs, clean water, economic development and a high quality of life.
Floodplain managers of various sorts – county flood managers, tribal fisheries biologists, agricultural drainage districts, conservationists, etc. – embraced the concept, having seen the folly of trying to “control rivers” and the inefficiency of trying to manage only one cog in a complex social and environmental landscape. In 4 short years the concept has evolved into a broad partnership – a “movement” in the words of one local partner. The “movement” has benefitted from strong support from the state legislature which has given $80M to the Washington Department of Ecology for the new state Floodplains by Design grant program.
Erica Simek Sloniker, Cartographer and Visual Communications specialist for The Nature Conservancy, has produced a map series that documents the evolution from concept to movement. The initial 9 Floodplains by Design demonstration projects were funded by the state legislature in 2013. 2014 brought 13 more and 2015 another 7. Earlier this year, the Department of Ecology received 56 proposals for the next round of funding – an indication of the strong interest in joining this river revolution.
For more information visit www.floodplainsbydesign.org .
Written by Beth Geiger, Northwest Writer
Graphics by Erica Simek-Sloniker, Visual Communications
A dramatic change has taken place in a marsh in Port Susan Bay, near Stanwood, Washington. In just three years the total length of tidal channels naturally increased tenfold, from 2,300 to 23,000 meters.
Tidal channels are key to a well-functioning estuarine ecosystem. Channels increase habitat diversity, which in turn increases species diversity. Juvenile salmon use the channels, dabbling ducks use them, and invertebrates that provide food for other species use them.
Scientists like Roger Fuller, an ecosystems ecologist at Western Washington University, are chronicling the new tidal channels, along with other changes here. Fuller says the development of so many new channels is “a big surprise.”
The new channels started forming in 2012, after The Nature Conservancy removed 7,000 feet of dike that had separated the 150-acre marsh from the rest of Port Susan Bay since the 1950s. The dike removed had over time diverted Hatt Slough, the Stillaguamish River’s biggest distributary channel, south where it spills into Port Susan Bay. That dike had also cut the marsh off from its main source of fresh water and sediment.
With marsh, river, and Puget Sound connected again, natural processes took over. Critical estuary habitat quickly began to be rebuilt. A natural revival was underway.
The channels are a big part of this revival. “Channels build connections, creating the intimate links that tie the marsh, tide and river together,” Fuller explains. “They serve as the trade routes of the estuary, funneling water, sediment, fish, and the organic matter that fuels the entire estuarine food web back and forth between marsh and tidal flat.”
Supported by the Conservancy, Fuller and other scientists including Greg Hood with the Skagit River System Cooperative, and Eric Grossman, Christopher A. Curran and Isa Woo from the United States Geological Survey have been studying the channels and other ways that this estuary is recovering.
The researchers analyze before and after data, and compare the restoration area to a nearby reference marsh which has never been diked. They measure suspended sediment, water temperature, salinity, current, as well as topographic and ecological changes.
New tidal channels aren’t the only “before and after” they’ve seen. When the dikes were in place, the area inside them had been starved of its natural influx of sediment from the Stillaguamish River. The estuary had subsided until it was a meter lower than the surrounding tidelands in some places. It functioned more like a pond than a dynamic estuary. For example, there was no access or protected estuarine habitat for juvenile Chinook salmon transitioning from the Stillaguamish River into Puget Sound.
With the dike removed scientists have recorded a measurable rise in the height of the marsh. During those years the sediment delivered to PSB was unusually high in part due to the March 2014 Oso landslide. However, the data suggest that even if the marsh gets half as much sediment in future years, it may still rise fast enough to keep up with the rising sea level, estimated to be an average of about 24 inches by 2100.
Lessons from Nature
Fuller says that being surprised by nature here isn’t all that unexpected. “The one thing I knew before the restoration was that I would be surprised by the changes triggered by the restoration,” he says. “There's been so little research on restoration in northwest estuaries that I knew it would be really interesting to watch it unfold.”
The restoration project is part of the Port Susan Bay Preserve, which includes 4,122 acres of estuary that the Conservancy acquired in 2001. The science being conducted here reaches much further than the Preserve itself. Along with learning new lessons, we are applying scientific concepts and models honed under this and other Conservancy projects such as Fisher Slough.
Together, these projects demonstrate that carefully planned restoration can have complementary, not conflicting, benefits for people, salmon, farms, and wildlife. The Conservancy-led Floodplains by Design provides the partnerships and funding that ensure these lessons can extend to restoration projects all over Puget Sound.
As a result of diligent science and critical partnerships like this, we are learning how to make Puget Sound more resilient as climate changes, and sea level rises.
Written and Photographed by Julie Morse, Regional Ecologist
I pulled up to the city park in Arlington on Tuesday about lunchtime to check and see what the river was doing. Guess I wasn’t the only one with that idea, it felt like pulling into a drive thru theatre. There was a line of cars – all facing the river, owners staying inside the cars, just watching and texting photos of a raging river.
It makes sense I thought, this is Western Washington after all. This is flood season. This is what we do for entertainment; we go and watch the river.
Wednesday morning after the storm had passed and the rivers had peaked I again drove down to see what the river was doing in Stanwood. Only it didn’t feel like good ol’ fashion entertainment this time. Instead there was a flurry of activity with fire trucks and rescue vehicles, and one bright orange hovercraft launching right off highway 532, going straight across the valley to rescue people stranded in isolated farmhouses.
This is not the first time the Stilly valley has flooded. In fact, it’s not even the first time this week the Stilly flooded. The Stillaguamish had two “100 year floods” this week, making this at least the 5th 100 year flood in the last ten years1. I know - either I’m really bad at math, or naming a flood after a probabilistic return interval is a really horrible way to communicate flood risk.
Our partners at the UW Climate Impacts Group released a report this week called the State of Knowledge: Climate Impacts in Puget Sound. The report synthesizes 20 years of studies on climate change, boiling it down to key points for our region. One of the key findings of the report – flood risk is increasing in Puget Sound. Not just the frequency of flooding, but the floodwaters themselves are getting higher. Substantially higher, in some places.
In preparing for releasing the report this week, we’ve started calling it the ‘triple whammy’ of increasing flood risk. Basically there are 3 big drivers of climate change that are causing increased flood risk in Puget Sound. First, you’ve got sea level rise backing up the rivers. Second, we’ve got increasing heavy rain events. Locals in Arlington told me “this isn’t our typical Arlington drizzle” and they’re exactly right. Warmer ocean temperatures and warmer air results in more moisture in the storms. And third, with warmer temperatures – more of our precipitation falls as rain not snow. Rain immediately runoffs to the nearest river causing then rapidly rising river levels.
Just to be clear, this report tells us nothing about our weather today – if for example these floods on the Stilly this week were a result of climate change. For that, we need attribution studies – a hot new topic in climate science, but not the intent of this report. Instead this report is intended to provide future estimates, and the range of natural variability we can expect, so that we can plan accordingly.
As I drove around taking photos of the Stilly flood I was amazed by people that were still home, stranded in their homes just waiting for the flood to recede. I could see dogs on the back porch of one house, desperately waiting for a tiny patch of grass so they could go take care of business. I know this certainly isn’t the first flood these folks have gone through, I know they are rich with stories of past floods. And I know they are certainly hardy folks. But I worry the past gives us a false sense of security about the future.
I hope this report helps illustrate clear differences, and helps us understand how our river hydrology is completely changing. I hope it helps us make smart choices. I know it’s easy to get completely overwhelmed and feel hopeless in the face of climate change. But climate change is not hopeless, if you can see it coming.
1Based on a flood return interval calculated through 1998 and reported in Snohomish County’s 2004 flood hazard plan.Wednesdays peak flow was the 5th highest ever recorded at the Arlington gage, and technically a 500 year flood event.
By: Julie Morse, Project Ecologist
That’s a first. Trust me, I’ve attended a lot of conferences with Floodplain Managers, Biologists, Engineers, City Planners, etc… And I have NEVER seen this kind of inspirational language show up in the middle of a PowerPoint presentation. Presentations at these kinds of workshops are generally pretty dry - lots of numbers, graphs and figures. Sometimes the creative speakers will throw in a video or pretty pictures to keep people awake. But let’s be honest, these workshops are generally pretty dry with lots of “Blah, Blah, Blah…”
Yesterday was different.
Yesterday, The Nature Conservancy in Washington convened a workshop for people working in Puget Sound as part of our Floodplains by Design Partnership. Despite the fact that it was a beautiful June day and plenty of people were off of vacation, despite the fact that Seattle was experiencing one of its epic traffic days, despite the fact that there were other big meetings happening in the area, despite all that, more than 150 people showed up to hear what’s happening with Floodplains by Design.
Representatives from five Congressional offices and one U.S. Senator’s office. Staff from seven counties were there along with representatives from four of Puget Sound’s tribes. Farmers, businesses that work in flood plains and agencies came. What’s more - people even came from across the state (Yakima) and even out of state (Oregon) to hear what was happening in Puget Sound.
There was a buzz in the room, and with good reason. Among the successes we celebrated:
- In 2013, over $44 million in state legislative were appropriated for integrated floodplain projects
- This funding has helped catalyze 15 big projects – providing multiple benefits to a number of communities including reduced flood risks, restored salmon habitat, improved water quality, agricultural infrastructure upgrades and enhanced public access and recreational opportunities.
Colonel Estok, outgoing Seattle District Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers thanked everyone in the room for their efforts working collaboratively, and The Nature Conservancy for being the glue that pulls these different groups together. He reflected on three years of incredible progress.
But it was also time to look forward. Here are some huge opportunities for collaboration and getting Big Things Done in the coming year:
- A new capital budget request highlighting at least $50 million in compelling, ambitious, needed projects
- Potential ballot initiative to create an even larger, dedicated revenue source for multiple benefit floodplain projects
- Colonel John Buck was introduced as the new Seattle District Commander for the Army Corps of Engineers, an important partner in the FbD Partnership
The best presentation of the day was the last, given by our government relations director Mo McBroom. Through Mo’s talk I could see her spunky enthusiasm was going to battle with her more subdued professional side. Mo was clearly trying to contain her excitement about the potential for the legislature to help support, and be a leader nationally, in addressing water issues - whether it’s too much water (flooding), too little water (irrigation needs), or nowhere for the water to go (stormwater). I’m not sure trying to contain her enthusiasm was really working for her, in fact quite the opposite; I thought her enthusiasm was contagious.
Mo ended her presentation with reiterating the phrase of the day - Think BIG. Believe BIG. Act BIG. And the results will be BIG. There are BIG things happening in Puget Sound. Yesterday I felt incredibly proud to be part of it.
To hear more of what people are saying about Floodplains by Design, please visit our website – http://www.floodplainsbydesign.org/perspectives/
Climate change may feel like something that will impact us in the future, but local environmental scientists know it is already here causing noticeable changes and creating new challenges.
Jodie Toft, Senior Ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in Washington answers some questions about how climate change is affecting us now, and what the Conservancy is doing to help.
Question: What kinds of changes is climate change already causing in our state?
Jodie Toft: There is clear scientific evidence that the impact of climate change is being felt in the Pacific Northwest.
- Sea levels are rising
- Rivers are peaking earlier
- The temperature in the Pacific Northwest is rising
- Snowpack in the Cascades has declined by nearly 25%
- Mountain pine beetles are attacking forests at record levels due to warmer, dryer conditions
- Western wildfires have increased significantly
- Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the water are causing the ocean to become more acidic, damaging marine life
Question: What do scientists predict will happen in the future?
Jodie Toft: Research shows the impact of climate change on our region will increase in the coming years:
- Air temperatures will continue to rise
- Severe flooding is predicted for western Washington, while eastern Washington will face drought, threatening agriculture, salmon and community safety
- Damage from wildfires will increase
- The ocean will become warmer and more acidic
- Beaches, tidal swamps and marshes will shrink, diminishing vital habitat for fish, birds and wildlife
Question: This feels overwhelming. What can, or is being done?
Jodie Toft: At The Nature Conservancy, our work is aimed at adapting to climate change.
- Active forest restoration including mechanical thinning and controlled burning are creating large forest landscapes that re more resilient to fire, drought, insects and disease.
- We’ve modeled and are implementing an innovative approach to manage the flood risk to Puget Sound communities through large scale projects that protect fish, habitats, farms and humans
- Along the Washington coast, we’re helping communities steward land and marine resources, and plan for the increasing impact of climate change
Virtually every challenge we tackle can be traced to changing climate. As we look to the future, our focus is on adapting to current and future changes to protect people and nature.
GOOD FIRE, BAD FIRE
By Ryan Haugo, Washington-Idaho Forest Ecologist
The 2012 Pacific Northwest wildfire season was one for the record books.
In Idaho, the Mustang Complex alone burned 300,000 acres. In Washington, over 350,000 total acres burned and fire suppression costs alone totaled more than $88 million dollars. Not exactly chump change in this time of fiscal cliffs and sequestration.
Yet, fire always has been and always will be an integral part of our western forests. Fire is both inevitable and is the ultimate contradiction; often beautiful, terrifying, destructive, renewing and life-giving, all at the same time. Yet, our management of western forests over the past century has broken this natural link with fire, leaving our forests vulnerable to uncharacteristically large and destructive fire and insect and disease outbreaks. Climate change will only increase these vulnerabilities.
In my role as a forest ecologist I spend a lot of time talking about the risks of “uncharacteristic fire” (bad!) and the importance of “prescribed fire” (good!) in restoring healthy and resilient forests.
Our official tagline is “The Nature Conservancy works to maintain fire’s role where it benefits people and nature, and keep fire out of places where it is destructive”. An excellent sentiment, but the line between fire that “benefits people and nature” and fire that is “destructive” can be quite blurry.
Last September an intense late summer lightning storm rolled across the Pacific Northwest, starting fires in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. That month I had a series of meetings across eastern Washington and northern Idaho. No matter where I traveled, I couldn’t escape the smoke. During the day visibility was terrible and at night my eyes stung and my throat hurt, even when holed up in my hotel room. No fun – that much smoke must certainly indicate a “bad fire”, right?
Not necessarily. This winter we were finally able to get out and take a look at some of the newly burned forests that had smoked-in my September travels. Matt Dahlgreen, TNC forester and intrepid explorer, shot a beautiful series of photos from one section of the Wenatchee Complex fires in eastern Washington.
His photos show rejuvenation and restoration, not death and destruction. These fires had burned with relatively low severity during a time of moderate weather conditions, and the net result were thinned forest stands that will be even more resilient to the next fire. There were other patches with nearly all of the trees killed, but this occurred in areas where the forest is adapted to “high severity fire” and the bear, elk and other wildlife will greatly benefit.
What determines if a wildfire is good or bad? Suppression costs? Property destruction? Air quality? Impacts on wildlife habitat? Can a fire be good and bad at the same time?
I don’t think there are any easy answers to these questions. Even a small, seemingly benign prescribed fire produces smoke that can be hazardous to sensitive populations if precautions are not taken. Even a massive “mega-fire” leaves behind habitat for a number of different wildlife species. Society weighs the costs and benefits based on the affected values of the time.
The one thing that we know for certain is that in forests across the west there will be more wildfire in the coming years (see recent research by Moritz and colleagues, and Westerling and colleagues).
In the face of this inevitability, our focus at the Conservancy is on promoting resilient natural and human communities. In the forests that have traditionally supported timber economies, we focus on smart restoration using tools such as mechanical harvests and prescribed fire.
In other forests, we advocate managing wildfires at the right place and time – when the conditions are right. Just as there is often not a simple answer as to whether a fire is good or bad, there is no one single approach to conserving our forested landscapes.
YELLOW ISLAND ADVENTURE
Much of what The Nature Conservancy does in Washington is not glamorous. Pushing back levees, cleaning up waste water and thinning forests are all vitally important, but they aren’t the stuff of postcards.
Then there’s Yellow Island. This tiny preserve in the San Juan Islands redefines natural beauty – especially this time of year. Meadows of blooming wildflowers flow down to the water, making it nearly impossible two walk more than a few steps without taking a picture. This weekend a group of 30 or so supporters visited this very special place to soak in the views and learn more about what the Nature Conservancy is doing to keep it beautiful.
Behind the beauty, there is a lot of science and hard work. To the east, in the Skagit Valley, we work to improve water quality, assuring what runs into the sound supports a healthy environment around Yellow Island and beyond. On the Washington coast, to the southwest, we restore forests, clean up streams and rivers and improve sustainable fishing practices – all to assure marine health in the region. Partnerships with farmers, fisherman, loggers and communities make this work happen. In many cases, it’s not about saving nature from people; it’s about imagining the best ways for nature and people to work together. It’s not always glamorous, though there is great beauty in the fields and farms that grow our food, the forests that shelter and clean our water and the rivers that sustain our salmon.
Yellow Island may be a crown jewel in the work we do in Washington. It’s certainly a spectacular example of the beauty of nature and an inspiration to keep up our hard work around the state. Your support makes Yellow Island – and our work in the east cascade forests, coastal rivers and around Puget Sound possible. Thank you for contributing to the multifaceted work – some glamorous, some not – that makes our state so beautiful.