Why Does Climate Change Matter to the Columbia River?

Lance Koudele / Columbia Riverkeeper

By Miles Johnson

Why does a river organization like Columbia Riverkeeper dedicate so much energy to fighting fossil fuel projects?

First, fossil fuels threaten clean water. Think oil spills, pipelines that degrade salmon streams, coal dust in the river, and aerial deposition of mercury from coal-burning power plants. But we have additional motivation to fight fossil fuel infrastructure: climate change is harming the Columbia River and our communities right now. And giant fossil fuel corporations want to build more infrastructure—pipelines, fracked gas refineries, shipping terminals—to lock our region into continued reliance on dirty energy. Together, we are taking a stand to protect clean water and our climate.

With each victory over fracked gas, oil and coal, we are protecting clean water and our climate. This article explores four (of the many) impacts of climate change—salmon in hot water, extreme heat waves, fire danger and streams running dry—harming the people, animals and plants in our region right now. In addition, the article describes scientists' projections of future impacts. Our work is urgent and full of hope. By defeating fossil fuel infrastructure today, we support the rapid transition to clean energy, which will increase prosperity in the Pacific Northwest.

Four impacts of climate change in the Pacific Northwest:

Salmon in Hot Water

The mighty Columbia River is synonymous with salmon. When tribes alone inhabited the Columbia River Basin, as many as 30 million salmon returned to the river each year. Despite significant declines, these salmon runs hold tremendous cultural and economic value for tribes and other river communities throughout the Pacific Northwest. While we struggle to restore the Columbia's imperiled salmon runs, climate change is warming the river, making it even harder for salmon to survive.

Salmon leaping of Lyle FallsColumbia Riverkeeper

Salmon need cool water. Warm water encourages disease-causing bacteria and fungi, delays salmon migration and depletes salmon's energy reserves. How warm is too warm? Adult salmon have difficulty swimming upstream when water temperatures approach 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Salmon that have stopped or slowed their migration, and languish for days or weeks in warm water, begin dying from stress and disease before they can return to their home streams to spawn.

Average summer water temperatures in the Columbia River have steadily increased over the past 60 years, and will only get hotter if climate change intensifies. Fifty years ago, the Columbia was too hot for salmon migration for only a week or two during the very peak of the summer. Now the Columbia frequently remains above 68 degrees Fahrenheit from mid-July until mid-September, making salmon migration during that time difficult or impossible. The Fish Passage Center, a federal science agency, explained that "under a climate change scenario, the long-recognized and largely unaddressed problem of high water temperatures ... becomes an ever-increasing threat to the survival of salmon in the Columbia River Basin."

That threat became a stark reality in the summer of 2015. Roughly 250,000 adult sockeye salmon, including 96 percent of the critically endangered Snake River sockeye run, died prematurely in the Columbia and lower Snake because the rivers were too hot. Though it's convenient to call 2015 an outlier, climate scientists predict that the air and water temperatures that killed so many salmon in 2015 will become increasingly common.

To protect salmon, we must stop burning fossil fuels. In addition, altering and removing dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers can help solve water temperature problems. The Columbia and Snake dams create large, shallow reservoirs that trap the sun's heat and warm up the rivers. If we operated the dams differently, and removed the lower four Snake River dams, we could directly address the hot water crisis that threatens salmon survival.

Free the Snake 2015 by Ben Moon for Patagonia

Extreme Heat Waves

Across the Pacific Northwest, hotter days and nights are growing more common. Climate change will increase the intensity, frequency and duration of extreme heat waves during the summer, with dangerous consequences. Heat kills more people in the U.S. in most years than floods, tornadoes or hurricanes. Our region's cool, rainy reputation leaves many people unprepared to deal with extreme temperatures and heat waves.

The Pacific Northwest—like many other parts of the world—has seen record hot spells in recent summers. Climate change has already doubled the frequency of heat waves in some regions. And more extreme heat is on the way, even if we substantially reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions. Government scientists predict that heat waves in the Pacific Northwest over the next 30 to 60 years will be roughly twice as common as they are now and last twice as long. Summer temperatures that would have been extreme in the 1950s will become commonplace in coming decades, and we will see more record-high temperatures.

Extreme heat waves are dangerous. Heat is among the top weather-related causes of death in the U.S., responsible for an average of 1,500 fatalities per year. One recent study in Washington state found a 50-percent increase in heat-related hospitalizations during summers with serious heat waves. Residents of the Pacific Northwest may be at particular risk, even though heat waves here are less severe than in other regions. Many Oregonians and Washingtonians don't think of heat as a health risk, may not know the signs of heat stroke, and may not have access to air conditioning. A nationwide study found that "areas along the West Coast showed very high vulnerability [to heat waves], even though their current climates are temperate.

Like many other consequences of climate change, extreme heat waves will cause the most harm to the most vulnerable members of our society. Because urban areas collect additional heat, elderly and poor people living in large cities face the greatest risks. Older people tend to be less resilient to the physical stress of prolonged heat waves. And in the Pacific Northwest, where many homes lack air conditioning, low-income communities may not have access to, or the ability to pay for, relief from the heat.

Fire Danger

Residents of the Columbia River Gorge and the Portland metro area won't soon forget last summer's Eagle Creek Fire: weeks of smoke and haze; road closures; evacuation alerts and vacant downtowns in Gorge communities that usually bustle with summer visitors. And while we had it bad, the deadly fires that ravaged California communities later in 2017 were downright catastrophic.

Across the nation and the globe, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires. Large wildfires in the U.S. currently burn more than twice as many acres each year as they did in 1970, and the average wildfire season now lasts two-and-a-half months longer. Less snow, earlier snowmelt and warmer air temperatures—all linked to climate change—lead to the hot, dry conditions that boost fire activity. Warmer, drier conditions also make fires harder to put out.

The Pacific Northwest's forests will be especially susceptible to wildfires as our climate changes. In Oregon and Washington, the mountains of the Cascade and Coast ranges traditionally have wet winters and relatively cool summers, leading to infrequent forest fires. But if the average temperature increases by one degree Celsius in this region—including the Gorge—the number of acres burned each year could rise by more than 400 percent. In the forests of northeastern Oregon, the number of acres burned each year could increase by more than 500 percent.

While we fight climate change, we'll also need to change the ways we manage and live with wildfire. Old ideas about wildfire suppression should be discarded; immediately putting out every forest fire, no matter the location, is incredibly expensive and allows dangerous amounts of fuel to build up over time. Forest management, like thinning around rural communities, may play a limited role. But powerful timber corporations and elected leaders should not use fire danger as an excuse to increase clearcutting and salvage logging that harm water quality, fish and wildlife.

Streams Running Dry

Washington, Oregon and Idaho are famous for beautiful, wild rivers and streams. The Wenatchee, Yakima, Deschutes, Clackamas and Selway—just to name a few in the Columbia Basin—evoke a powerful connection and sense of pride for many Pacific Northwest residents. We boat, fish, swim, and draw drinking water from our many rivers. Properly restored, these streams can once more support healthy salmon runs. But only if there's enough water to keep our rivers and streams flowing.

Climate change threatens to decrease water levels in western rivers, especially during the summer. Most surface water in the West comes from snowmelt, but snowfall is declining and projected to decline faster if climate change continues. With less snowmelt to feed rivers throughout the summer, and warmer air temperatures increasing evaporation, many rivers won't have much water left in the summer and fall. Some streams in the Columbia Basin may run dry altogether.

In response to declining snowpack, some suggest building new dams to trap rainfall and spring runoff. But dam construction would sacrifice the very rivers we seek to protect and restore. We already live with the legacy of thousands of large and small dams throughout the Columbia Basin. Dam construction is the past; dam removal and healthy, free-flowing rivers are our present and future.

One Columbia Basin stream already facing acute water shortages is Fifteenmile Creek. From its headwaters in the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains, the creek flows into the Columbia River near The Dalles, OR, and provides an important spawning area for threatened steelhead. Fifteenmile Creek receives about 70 inches of precipitation each year—mostly as snowmelt—but irrigation already competes for scarce water in the summer, sometimes running the stream dry and killing young fish. Further decreases in snowfall and precipitation could push this imperiled population of steelhead over the brink of extinction.

Hope for a Brighter, Cooler Future

The threats from climate change are real and daunting, yet we see reasons for hope all around us. The Pacific Northwest is combating climate change by refusing to host coal and oil export terminals and by decreasing our reliance on fracked gas for power. Instead, your voice is driving a transition to clean, renewable energy and setting an example for the rest of the U.S. and beyond. Together, we can protect the Columbia Basin's people and places from the worst impacts of climate change while protecting clean water.

Miles Johnson is senior attorney at Columbia Riverkeeper.

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