nwifcLast week, when I wrote that the costs of doing nothing about climate change outstrip the costs of fixing the problem, one person wrote asking for hard numbers. How do we know for certain which is more expensive? Maybe it will be cheaper to abandon ship, so to speak: move everyone (and everything) out of flood-prone areas and forget about reducing emissions.

Fair enough, I suppose. It would be interesting to see someone crunch those numbers. Plus, whether we reduce our emissions or not, we’ll likely need to undertake some expense for “adaptation”—the costs of managing the climate impacts that are already unavoidable.

More precisely though, it’s a fair enough question only for those of us who don’t have our livelihoods and heritage bound up in the Northwest’s rivers and lowlands. Not everyone really has the option of leaving. Consider the tribes.

  • If the Northwest’s rivers and fish are markers of your basic identity, not to mention your income, you may see climate impacts (and climate adaptation) in a somewhat different light. Toward that end, floods over the past few years can be instructive for understanding how climate change may severely damage Indian well-being.

    Here’s what the Puyallup Tribe is facing according to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC):

    Fewer juvenile wild chinook migrated from the Puyallup River in 2007, likely because winter floods in the winter of 2006 washed away chinook redds—or nests—before the fish had a chance to emerge from the gravel.

    “There are only a few places where chinook can spawn throughout the Puyallup watershed, so one flood can do terrible damage to an entire run,” said Russ Ladley, resource protection manager for the Puyallup Tribe.

    What’s worse, is that some of our climate adaptation strategies—diking, for example—may actually make the problem worse for the Puyallups:

    Historically, floods were not as damaging to juvenile salmon. “Development and urbanization have changed the watershed so much with diking and paving that even minor flooding can do incredible damage to young fish,” Ladley said.

    Another article by NWIFC makes a related point:

    “Historically, the Puyallup River was able to use its entire floodplain, carving new paths and creating new off-channel habitat for salmon,” said Russ Ladley, resource protection manager for the tribe. “Since we started diking and building in the floodplain, a lot of off-channel habitat has been lost.”

    “Off-channel habit is especially important to salmon during the winter, when floods and strong currents make the Puyallup mainstem a difficult place to live,” Ladley said. Most of the lower Puyallup is closely constrained by dikes, making the damage of winter floods worse on salmon.

    “It’s like putting your finger on the end of a hose,” he said. “When there is more water in the river, and the river isn’t able to move naturally, water travels faster and does more damage.”

    For another example, the Squaxin Island Tribe is still reeling from a storm-induced landslide in 1990:

    A nearly 20 year old landslide is still hurting salmon according to a recently completed analysis of sediment in the Deschutes River by the Squaxin Island Tribe.

    “The sediment from that landslide is still working its way through the river system,” said John Konovsky, environmental program manager for the Squaxin Island Tribe. “It has a relatively high proportion of minute dirt particles that continue to hinder coho reproduction.”

    In January 1990, a huge storm hit the Deschutes River blocking an old culvert under a logging road. The resulting landslide sent tons of hillside sediment into Huckleberry Creek, a headwater tributary to the Deschutes.

    Coho production in the 1980’s was typically around 80,000-90,000 smolts per year, but in the early 1990’s, it crashed. “Certainly marine survival has played a major role,” said Scott Steltzner, fisheries biologist for the tribe. “But the sudden decline in local habitat conditions is also a strong contributing factor.”

    To be sure, just as with the Puyallup fish, land use and other factors also play a role in the Deschutes salmon health. But winter storm events—the kind of thing that some climate models predict—seem to be significantly worsening the situation.

    The good news, if there is some, is that we seem to be improving our land use. Clear cutting on steep slopes is less common, and older problematic culverts are slowly getting replaced. And a preliminary examination of the Deschutes by the Squaxin Island Tribe seems to indicate that the 2009 floods were not as damaging as the 1990 storm.

    Just to be clear, I’m not saying that the floods and storms I’ve mentioned here resulted from climate change. That’s not something we can know. What I am saying is that they are instructive: they are the sort of thing we might expect in the future. We might want to plan for them. And we might also want to see what we can do to prevent them from happening more often—and more dangerously—than they might in a warming world.

    A big thanks to Emmett O’Connell at the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission who provided me the links in this post.