You Can Lead a Horse to Water- Ummm, Maybe Not for Long.

Climate change is becoming less abstract and more real for me as I am spending a lot of time lately working in California. The Golden State is looking very parched these days and there are great many stories floating around in the media and around the dinner table about just how much this phenomenon will affect our lives and livelihoods.

I don’t spend too much time thinking about whether this is made by mankind or Mother Nature or some inexplicable cosmic force. I figure let’s error on the side of caution and do what we can as humanoids because what else can we do?

I’d rather find out twenty years from now that we didn’t really have to stop pouring aerosol spray into the atmosphere than to find out we should have.

I think a lot about the future because it is my nature to ponder but I also have a more practical stake in these outcomes: five kids and hopefully some grandchildren and I want them to enjoy their lives as much as I am.

Oh, and let’s not forget the rest of the human race, which doesn’t exactly have a perfect track record, but has definitely done some magnificent things.

I’m not above crowing about how smart I think I am for leading a migration to the Great Northwest, where the trees are still green and bountiful. So far only one of my kids has actually followed my lead, so I decided to consult someone who knows a lot more about these things than I do.

His name is John Yearsley and he has a lot of fancy letters after his name, one of which is MIT. That means he’s smart and John’s particular field of expertise is water.

I figure if I’m going to keep telling anyone who will listen that they should take advantage of affordable real estate, excellent public schools and yes, it rains a lot and we are damn proud of the fact that we are surrounded by water, then I better back that up with some science.

So John was nice enough to take some time to answer some questions about our water and our future.

Mel: Do you have any short term concerns about the water supply in Bellingham?

John: Yes and no, of course. The likelihood is low that I or any of my friends or neighbors will not see water coming out of the tap whenever we turn it on in the next five years. Nevertheless, there is uncertainty about the reliability of the two sources for Bellingham water, the Nooksack River and the Lake Whatcom watershed. The Nooksack River has many competing interests for its water including irrigated agriculture, dairy farms, municipal drinking water supply, industrial water supply, in stream flow requirements and tribal rights. Furthermore, extraction of groundwater from permitted wells and exempt wells has an as-yet unknown impact on Nooksack River flows. (Did you know that you can withdraw an unlimited amount of water from a permit exempt well for watering livestock or for watering your lawn?) Lurking in the future of the Nooksack River watershed is the specter of climate change. Climate models for the Cascades predict more precipitation falling as rain in the winter at mid-level elevations (3000-5000 feet), resulting in less runoff from snowmelt in the summer.

The reconveyance of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) land to Whatcom County was the one bright spot in the future for Lake Whatcom. Earlier this year, the DNR transferred (reconveyed) 8800 acres of forest lands, much of which includes the Lake Whatcom watershed to Whatcom County parks. It’s been logged, of course, and I believe there are some conditions under which it can still be logged. However, it is a great acquisition and could do much in preventing further development in the watershed. Both Portland (the Battle of Bull Run) and Seattle have interesting histories of logging in their watersheds which could well be resurrected in the event there are proposals to log the Whatcom property. The forest provided funding for the Mount Baker School District when it was under the jurisdiction of the DNR and some out in the county cried “foul”. The county settled with the school district for something under one million dollars, as I recall. There was also a law suit, but good sense prevailed. Ironically enough, it succeeded because it had the support of a previous council member notable for her staunch conservatism.
The rest of the story is not so good. In 1998, the Washington State Department of Ecology listed Lake Whatcom and many of its tributaries as impaired for nutrients and coliform bacteria under the Federal Clean Water Act of 1972. This is supposed to initiate planning and, eventually, implementation of a program that results in improved water quality in the lake. Much studying has ensued, but no action as far as I can tell. Hence, the clogged water intakes in the summer from algae prompting the city to ask for voluntary water conservation.

Mel: What should we be doing about this?

John: No easy answers here for the Nooksack River. The Water Resource Inventory Area No. 1 (WRIA 1) project is working on a detailed implementation plan for managing water in the watersheds included in WRIA 1. Meanwhile, the farmers are forming water districts for projects that would “provide more water for farmers, particularly those whose use exceeds their rights and to pay legal fees” and so on. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen soon. One of the quickest steps in the right direction, however, but also difficult, would be to close the permit exempt loophole.

The same goes for Lake Whatcom. The City of Bellingham’s use of a body of water for water supply that has 6500 homes in the watershed, (many of them on the shoreline with questionable wastewater treatment, motor boating, human and animal swimmers and construction) is probably not unique. I imagine it’s a lot better than Calcutta’s, but water supply sources like Seattle’s or Portland’s are more like what I think of as appropriate. The reconveyance helps, for sure, but even that was something of a battle. Checking the bottom of boats at Bloedel Donovan isn’t going to solve the water quality problem and it may not even solve the invasive species problem. Something the city and county could do, however, is to buy properties as they come up for sale and tear them down; or at least look at the cost of that compared to other solutions. As is, the lake is getting worse each year according to the Department of Ecology. It will probably continue to do so as population pressures increase.

Mel: I asked you this once before. If I were to suggest a place for my 30-something kids to move to that will still have abundant water in their lifetime (perhaps the next 60 years), and you told me Marblemount. Why Marblemount?

John: Marblemount is, except for City Light’s company town at Newhalem, the last community on the mighty Skagit River. It’s also at the confluence of the Cascade River with the Skagit. Rainfall there is copious and water use by the few who live there is minimal, although there are a few farms that probably irrigate in the summer. It’s basically upstream of all water users in the Skagit, the biggest river in the Puget Sound basin. Plus, it’s only 50 miles from I-5.

Mel: Whether climate change is mostly caused by mankind or not, what can we do, if anything, to stop it?

John: Here’s what I believe (the Nicene Creed for climate scientists): I believe in all the conservation laws (energy, mass, momentum and all the others). I also believe that committed, intelligent scientists use these laws to simulate the effects of mankind on the climate and these simulations, with their associated uncertainty, show that, yes, mankind’s burning of fossil fuels is changing the climate. Furthermore, these results are consistent with observations and analyses of the real world. I would recommend caution in believing this is true simply because 99% of the science says it is. There are examples of cases in which 99% of the scientists said it was this or that, but it turned out to be something different. Think of phlogiston, for example, as a scientific theory explaining combustion. Discovery of the role of oxygen in combustion did in phlogiston. However, as of yet, the weight of evidence supports the conclusion that mankind is altering the climate. Hansen, Sato and Ruedy have a Scientific American-level article, “Perception of Climate Change” that is useful in this regard.
Although it would take a long time (decades) to reverse the effects of fossil fuel consumption on the climate, there are many things that could be done to make this happen. Most all would have benefits other than simply reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The list is long, but comes under the general category of consuming less.

Mel: Yes, we can definitely do a lot more as consumers to be more responsible stewards of our planet.

I’m wondering if there are specific suggestions you would make or have made to our elected officials in terms of regulatory steps that would really have an impact?

John: Mel, The problem is systemic and universal. I don’t believe necessary regulations could be developed, implemented and reinforced. Regulations are not the answer, is a better way of saying it. According to a survey by Ipsos MORI, 46% of Americans either don’t know or don’t believe man is changing the climate. Count several of our prominent legislators in that group. The rest of us are not behaving any differently than the 46%. Consider all the people who believe that spending $90,000 for a Tesla electric car is saving the planet. Ironically, the largest percentage (93%) of people who believe man is changing the climate are Chinese. The Chinese government would have no problem enacting regulations (and enforcing them). But they’re not. Europeans seem to me to be the most aware and willing to address the problem at a personal level. But it would require more than that and it would have to be on a global scale.

Mel: Yikes. Marblemount, here I come!!!
-By Mel Damski

Dr. John Yearsley Born in Bismarck, North Dakota. Graduated Mount Vernon High School. Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master Degree in Geology and Geophysics (Oceanography) from MIT. PhD in Water Resources University of Washington. Environmental Scientist US EPA Region 10 1970-2004. Affiliate Professor University of Washington 2006-Present.

Mel Damski –
The Producing-Director of the TV series “Psych” and winner of the Best General Interest Column by the Washinghton Newspaper Association.

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