Washington’s Dwindling Glaciers and Water Supply

David Lester reports in the Yakima Herald-Republic: “In the first comprehensive study of its kind, a Portland State University study has found Mount Adams’ 12 glaciers have shrunk by nearly half since 1904 and are receding faster than those of nearby sister volcanoes Mount Hood and Mount Rainier. It’s another sign of gradually warming temperatures that — if continued as expected by researchers — will mean significant problems for the water-dependent Yakima Valley.”

Washington east of the Cascade Mountains is dry – parts of it have only 7 inches of rain a year, making all but desert.   Yet that is some of Washington’s richest farm land, growing most of the nation’s hops, and an awful lot of cherries, apples and pears, not to mention dairy and increasingly respected wine.   Water for those crops comes from the Cascades, where snowfall in the winter feeds rivers and farms in the summer.  Salmon too rely on that melting snow to provide river flow and cold water needed for spawning.

Climate models suggest that the snowpack is going to largely disappear.  Not that there will be much less precipitation, just that it will more and more fall as rain, running off rapidly, rather than as snow, melting into summer.   This research about Mt Adam’s glaciers directly feeds into that story.

Pacific Northwest agriculture is not the only area impacted by the melting glaciers from climate change. Water supplies dependent upon the Andean and Himalayan glaciers are also threatened. In the Himilayas the Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that water for agriculture in Asia is expected to decline by 20% by 2030. This causes local and global leaders to worry about the future of food production.

Even Yakima agriculture is starting to worry.  This is the political “red” country – deeply Republican.  It is represented by Rep. “Doc” Hastings, Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, a Republican a dismal record on the environment (League of Conservation Voters scores of 0% for the 106th through 109th Congress, rising to a whopping 3% in the 110th and 4% in the 111th Congress)  . Yet in his district, people in agriculture are starting to ask questions like “what are we going to do about this climate change stuff and our water supplies?”  Guys in coveralls know that their livelihood depends on snow.

So what are we going to do?  Conserve water – use it more efficiently and maybe switch away from water intensive industry like dairy?   Yep – everybody agrees that has got to be on high on the agenda.  But there is also a need to restore salmon to the Yakima River.  When federal dams were built and the river engineered, the 800,000 to a million salmon dwindled to a few thousand.  The Yakama Nation, a salmon tribe, had its treaty rights to fish made meaningless, once there were no fish.  Restoring salmon is a tough sell in that Congressional district.

NWF and our allies are working towards a comprehensive approach – using the need for change that climate disruption is causing.  After more than 2 years of discussion, every major interest in the Yakima basin has agreed on a plan that will help fish, farms and families.   It involves a mix of ambitious salmon restoration, protection about 200,000 acres of private and public lands to support a healthy watershed,  better use of existing water supplies and infrastructure and expanding water storage.

Look for more on the Yakima in the coming months – its an exciting and innovative project.

You can learn more about our work at the National Wildlife Federation Pacific Regional Center by going to our website and following us on facebook and twitter – @nwfpacific!