Sayonara, Snowpack

by PAUL K. HAEDER & r & & r & Do not let your chances like sunbeams pass by, for you never miss the water 'til the well runs dry.

& r & -- Rowland Howard (1876)

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & U & lt;/span & ntil recently, global warming and the rivers of the West were considered separate issues. Not any more. That was one of the big messages to come out of the National River Rally, held last month in Stevenson, Wash., near Portland. With more than 470 river advocates from around the United States, the emerging issue of global warming's impact on watersheds was at the top of the four-day gathering's collective list of concerns.

Oregon's Don Elder, president of the River Network, laid the groundwork for a burgeoning discussion that, indeed, climate change will affect all of our rivers in dramatic ways.

"Good water protection mitigates against climate change," Elder noted several times.

Global warming had better be on the mind of every city, county and state official. The projected growth of Washington state by the year 2030 is set to bring another 2.2 million people here, scurrying around divining for water. (We have blasted the growth chart since 1980 with a 54 percent rate, up from 4.1 million to today's 6.4 million residents.)

Spokane County's reputation as a water-wasting area is legend -- typically, 300 gallons per day per person, and sometimes 600 gallons per person per day at the peak of summer heat waves. Yet restricting water demand is one of the most basic ways we can keep the water supply flowing -- and it's a strategy already at work throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Corvallis, Ore., is proving that growth doesn't automatically mean more water consumption; that city has managed to decrease demand while its population has increased. And Seattle, which has seen snowpack levels in the Cascades steadily decrease since 1916, has a target of reducing per capita water consumption by 1 percent per year. With a population of 1.3 million, Seattle now averages less than 100 gallons per day per person.

And it's that snowpack that grabbed the attention of those in attendance at the River Rally.

We're talking simple meteorological physics here, tied to elegant but deadly cycles of hydrology: Snowpack for the Evergreen State has declined by 50 percent since 1950. These so-called water towers are vital to 80 percent of all rivers in the West because they're fed and recharged by snowmelt.

Studies show that this morphing weather caused by our carbon dioxide and methane gas expulsion will increase this country's average temperature five degrees Fahrenheit and will push ocean levels up 10 to 23 inches. That's just in five more decades. Concurrently, the snowpack will continue to shrink. This affects agriculture, since 75 percent of water is used to support food and other farm production.

Earlier melting, wetter winters, drier summers, high water temperatures, and more catastrophic forest fires -- these are the tipping points of global warming.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & ater is the key to any sort of human endeavor. Cities need water. In fact, the nation needs it -- water is the central global warming problem for the United States, as it is in many countries. Even the heavyweight of capitalistic myopia, Forbes magazine, sees water as central to the economic future of the United States.

It's a bleak outlook, and many of the activists and world-renowned experts have a kind of deep-seated depression in terms of how quickly we need to act to truly find balance and reverse the tides of rising sea levels, widening desertification zones and to bring on the needed energy revolution. They all struggle with how to give the general public the kind of reality therapy it needs.

Still, the level of dedication in the face of so great a challenge is inspiring. At the River Rally, I witnessed the fervor emanating from those telling of the realities of what that lack of snow and earlier thaws could mean to us: spring pulse melts coming 25 days earlier; winter floods intensifying exponentially; riparian areas negatively impacted because of warmer run-off; species die-offs in unimaginable proportions; hotter wildfires singeing soil to permanent sterility.

Spokane may be coming late to the issue, as compared to Corvallis and Seattle, but it will be at the center of the water gambit. We should all thank our local activists who were at the Rally last month -- several members of the Center for Justice, Mike Petersen of the Lands Council and Kitty Klitzke of Futurewise. They know what's at stake with our water here, and they'll be called upon to lead on the issue.

Another area we need to change is in our water rights laws. Washington state has a long way to go before we have rational water rights, and Spokane County is no different. Too often, developers here rely on that loopholes by putting new housing in areas where water rights laws can be circumvented through exempt well allowances.

Pushing conservation, setting in-stream flows based on science, cutting most exempt well allowances and much better planning and growth management are a few of the tools we'll need to confront the lack of snow our region is experiencing.

Pretty heady stuff, these questions raised at the River Rally, where almost every state was represented, as well as several other nations. Spokane will not be exempt and faces these same issues --Sonora Desert conditions are moving north, and water will be like gold. Wrapping our minds around the graphic fact that, for instance, in 50 years the state of Illinois will look more like Texas because of global warming, is both disheartening and a challenge.

Part Two of Paul K. Haeder's report from last month's National River Rally will appear in this space on June 21. ??