Water Scarcity & Climate Change: What we must do to prepare to protect rivers, drinking water aquifers

(1)   We are facing a serious water crisis in Washington and climate problems will make it worse over time.  

In watersheds like the Yakima and the Dungeness, some water users are required to curtail their use when there’s not enough water to go around.    The Native American Tribes hold water rights for instream habitat to protect treaty fisheries.   Washington’s population growth over the last decades, and consequent increase in water usage, has put these iconic fisheries at risk.    Reduced snowpack and glacial melt means our natural water storage systems are in peril.   The amount of water available for human and environmental needs will dramatically worsen in the coming years.

(2)   We need to get smarter about water usage by requiring conservation, reuse, and metering of water among other strategies.

In watersheds with serious water supply problems, residential developers and others will need to purchase water rights from existing users as mitigation for the new development.   This is already occurring in the Skagit and Kittitas basins, where water banks allow new users to purchase existing rights.   Seattle leads the nation in its water conservation program.   Reclaimed water (treating and recycling wastewater for non-potable uses) is common throughout the Southwestern U.S.  and is a new tool we can use in Washington.  Win-win solutions can be had through better management of water resources.

(3)   Recent Washington Supreme Court decisions reinforce the need for careful water management in order to protect limited and declining water supplies.    

The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of water resource protection in two important cases – decisions that Ecology is now working to overturn through its so-called “Rural Water Supply” Workgroup.   In the case of Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Department of Ecology, the Washington Supreme Court held that instream flows set by regulation are a form of water right, and Ecology cannot amend these rules to allocate more water out-of-stream.   In Kittitas County v. Growth Management Hearings Board, the Court ruled that local governments have obligations to protect water resources as part of their land use planning processes.   These decisions have the effect of limiting use of domestic wells in areas where water is scarce or over-allocated.

Local governments must adopt land use plans that include measures to protect groundwater resources.   The Department of Ecology has a duty to preserve and protect instream values – including water for fish and wildlife, water quality protection, navigation, and aesthetics – for future generations.   Government agencies must live up to their duties to protect Washington’s rivers and aquifers as required by statutes and the courts.


Preparing for Climate Change

With each passing year, we are seeing the initial impacts of global warming around the world:

  • increased droughts,
  • loss of snowpack and glaciers,
  • more severe floods,
  • and more violent storms.

We are facing a global lack of freshwater. The US Government stated in its National Intelligence Estimate that the impending shortage could turn access to fresh water into a weapon in regional conflicts worldwide.

Nor is the Northwest insulated  from the impending shortage of freshwater. Global warming is already reducing glaciers and snowpack in the Cascades.  Indeed, because our reliance on snowpack, which recharges our groundwater aquifers and provides summertime water in our rivers, the Northwest will be acutely affected by climate change.

1973 North Branch, Whitechuck Glacier, North Cascades. Neil Hickley photo.
2006 North Branch, Whitechuck Glacier. Leor Pantilat Photo.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program puts it succinctly:

“In areas where snowpack dominates, the timing of runoff will continue to shift to earlier in the spring and flows will be lower in late summer… [c]limate change will place additional burdens on already stressed water systems.”

Snowpack can be thought of as a natural storage system that, as it melts over the spring and summer months, slowly contributes water to streams and rivers in the dry summer months, recharging our aquifers. Increased ambient temperatures mean that precipitation in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest will fall as rain for more months in winter than as snow.  Snow is a natural, and very efficient water storage system. The dense, wet snow that is typical of the Cascades stores more water than the dry snow of the Rockies. Come warmer weather that water is slowly released as the snow melts, just when Washington’s aquifers and streams need replenishing.

Historical October-March Precipitation.
2040. October-March Precipitation.

The University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group has graphically depicted current Winter precipitation patterns compared to future ones.  The decrease in blue areas from the map on the left to the one on the right shows that the Cascades will receive less snow over the forthcoming decades.  The increase in green areas on the map on the right show that more precipitation will fall as rain. Transition areas, with  mixed snow and rain, and little snowpack, are in red.

Given our inability to meaningfully change our energy consumption practices, we will be facing a very different water future due to climate change.  CELP is  committed to advocating for the best water policies now to ensure sustainable water for fish and wildlife, and our children during the upcoming decades of change.