Valley must adapt to more fires, less snow and water
Climate change is not a future problem, according to scientists and activists who live and work in the Methow Valley.
It’s already here.
A plan for how the community will continue to thrive in the face of climate change is overdue, said Jasmine Minbashian, executive director of the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC). Increasing temperatures caused by burning fossil fuels and other human activities have already changed lives in the valley.
MVCC has organized a Climate Action Task Force, which will host a workshop called “Resilient Methow” on Nov. 19 at the Methow Valley Community Center. Members of the public will be asked to prioritize appropriate responses to increased wildfire danger, shorter snow seasons, and less water available to farms, homes and fish.
“It’s really important for people to share stories about how this is already impacting their industries and their sectors,” Minbashian said. “Climate change isn’t something that’s happening out in the future. It’s happening right now.”
“My hope is, by going through this process, we can become a model of how a rural community can adapt and be part of the solution to climate change.”
The task force, which began meeting in the spring, has roughly 25 members, including the mayors of Winthrop, Twisp and Pateros; and representatives from the Methow Valley School District, Methow Trails, businesses and utilities.
With the latest science on climate change’s impacts to the Methow Valley looking as far ahead as the 2080s, the task force also has a member who could very well live long enough to see how that turns out: Lena Nelson, a junior at Liberty Bell High School.
The task force invited the Colville Confederated Tribes to participate, Minbashian said, but they said they would provide input in workshops rather than join the group.
The tribes received a direct invitation to attend the Nov. 19 workshop, as did key state and federal agencies, Minbashian said.
The task force is divided into five sectors: health, economy, natural systems, infrastructure and agriculture. The sector that’s been hardest hit by climate change so far is arguably health — both physical and mental.
Wildfires posed a direct threat to human health in the Methow Valley four years out of five, from 2014 to 2018. Even when the blazes were miles away from homes and businesses, their smoke blanketed the valley and made the air unhealthy to breathe. Last year was especially bad; air quality was measured as “unhealthy” for 40 consecutive days.
The number of acres burned in wildfires in the Northwest has grown since the 1970s and will triple by the 2040s, according to research presented to the task force in July by Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington.
Kelly Edwards, associate director of Room One and a member of the task force, said persistent wildfire smoke is a climate-change impact that’s felt more forcefully by low-income people. While health officials will recommend that people stay indoors when smoke is heavy, that advice isn’t much help to people who live in older, draftier homes and who can’t afford air filters.
Also, low-income people often can’t skip work and leave the valley for cleaner air elsewhere, Edwards said.
The task force is looking into providing free air filters to the most vulnerable — something Room One was able to do in 2018, through a donation.
The economic impacts of climate change are already being felt, too. People planning Methow Valley weddings have started crossing August off their calendars because that month is usually the peak of fire and smoke season.
Several more weeks of tourism could fall off the calendar due to a shortened snow season. Snover’s July presentation showed that the average snow season could be 21 days shorter by the 2040s, and 47 days shorter by the 2080s.
James DeSalvo, executive director of Methow Trails and a task force member, called Snover’s numbers “sobering.”
“The stats speak for themselves, but in summary, yes we are concerned about a decrease in snowfall and what that means for our local businesses and the $12.4 million that comes in annually because of our system of trails,” DeSalvo said in an email.
DeSalvo mentioned some ideas already floated to preserve cross-country skiing in the valley, including moving the trails to higher elevations and thinning trees around existing trails to allow more snow to fall on them, while also creating fire-fuel breaks.
Less snow for skiers in winter means less water for farmers in summer. The Cascades snowpack, after all, is nature’s way of storing water for the next growing season.
“We anticipate that the Methow Valley will experience more drought conditions,” said Leslie Michel, a task force member who works for the state Department of Agriculture. “Warmer winters will result in … reduced snowpack, which is critical for summer streamflow for farmers’ irrigation.”
Those looking for a silver lining might point out that the Methow watershed will fare better than the Yakima. Climate science predicts the Yakima River will switch from an annual flow dictated by snowfall to one that is rain-dominated. Flows will peak in the winter, with the rains, rather than the late spring.
The Methow’s flow will peak a little earlier, and the river will run higher in winter and lower in the summer, but the general seasonal flow pattern remains the same, according to Snover’s presentation.
Given such a drastic change in another Columbia River tributary, the Methow will be an important remaining refuge for salmon in the decades to come, Minbashian said.
It’s just that the fish that reach the Methow River will find a thinner stream due to reduced snow melt. And if farming is to survive in the valley, and residential growth continues, salmon will have more competition for less water.
“The Methow is important for salmon habitat,” Minbashian said. “At the same time, what we’re learning is, if we’re going to survive in this new world, local food production is also going to be important. I’m not saying there is going to be any easy answers here, but we have to come together and talk this through.”
Beyond the trauma caused by wildfires and the anxiety felt by business owners who rely on winter tourism, psychologists are starting to acknowledge a more general “eco-anxiety” or “climate depression,” which includes a fatalistic attitude toward the demise of civilization.
This mental state is only reinforced by reports such as the one published Tuesday (Nov. 5), signed by more than 11,000 scientists, declaring a climate emergency and warning of “untold suffering” across the globe. The report highlighted the fact that people have been aware of climate change for 40 years and have made no meaningful progress toward countering it.
When addressing solutions to climate-related anxiety, therapists suggest activism as one option.
Snover, a part-time Methow Valley resident, suggested much the same thing when, after her presentation in July, a task force member asked for advice on how to approach a public that might be feeling numb and helpless.
IF YOU GO
What: Resilient Methow: workshop on adapting to local climate impacts
When: 5:45 – 9 p.m., Nov. 19
Where: Methow Valley Community Center, 201 S. Hwy. 20, Twisp
Cost: Free. Pizza, refreshments and child care provided
“I want people to have their eyes wide open at the train coming down the track, and the way that it stands to affect whatever it is they care about,” Snover said. “I want them to love that thing they care about so much that they want to do something about that train.”
“What’s really hard to grok is, we don’t have a choice about this anymore. It’s going to happen, and we can address it or not,” Snover added.
“I don’t know anyone who, when they miss their stop on the bus, they just keep riding.”
Minbashian said the Nov. 19 workshop is meant to be empowering.
“I hope people come away with the idea that there are things we can do,” Minbashian said. “We can be empowered as a community to determine the fate of our own future.”