Half Glass Empty When Assessing Pacific Northwest’s Climate Change-Water Outlook

Everything from growing food demands, climate change, and environmental refugees are changing our future

In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference.
— Rachel Carson

It’s not as if we in the Inland Northwest have a shortage of adherents of the mother of modern environmentalism, Dr. Rachel Carson, whose seminal work, Silent Spring (1962) is both the bible and standard manual for today’s activists looking to stave off environmental and societal collapse.

I’ve had the pleasure of running the Spokane River, Little Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, and parts of the Columbia with some passionate young and older folks from our stomping grounds who are working hard to “save the planet from our own best and worst designs, intended or unintended,” to use the parlance of some.

The reality is those riverkeepers, executive directors of environmental non-profits, scientists with the Department of Ecology, those working professors, writers, lawyers, a few truly unembedded politicians and planners are looking at this place’s future, and some are trying to frame the entire challenge around taking care of it through restorative environmental justice, for generations yet to be born.

Simple fixes like water conservation, the end to lush lawns, and beavers restored to much of our open land might be small moves toward mitigating the negative effects of climate change. In the case of global warming and climate disruption, Big is Better in terms of what we need to do. Keep in mind this one number: by 2100, 11 billion of us will be on the planet!

Scientists Must Speak to Us

I asked geologist/author/WSU professor E. Kirsten Peters to tackle a long list of questions tied to the civilization challenges to climate change. I broached– issues around pending water wars and entire societies shifting populations out of zones of sacrifice: where crops and industries fail due to the drying up of water sources and where governments and corporations fail to act to mitigate all of that. She was pretty adamant about her self-imposed limitations to considering these larger issues because she considers herself a geologist who looks at climate from a very narrow field.

Her 2012 book, The Whole Story of Climate: What Science Reveals about the Nature of Endless Change (Prometheus) posits that we need to live with climate change and not fear it, but rather, to embrace its inevitable force and adapt. “If we view climate change as our enemy, we will always be defeated, for climate will always change,” Peters said. “From my point of view, we therefore need to invest a good portion of our time and money into strategies to adjust to inevitable climate changes.”

I am not here to harangue Peters, known as the Rock Doc for her national column, but another Washington state scientist, Peter Ward, with more than a dozen books under his belt, sees the scientific community as partly responsible for the science illiteracy of Americans and many others in other countries.

“Well, science is certainly affected by how scientists perceive it should be, we’re all human,” Ward, a University of Washington professor, said in an interview a few years ago. “And human nature being what it is, it’s really a shame that science as we know it now discourages scientists talking to people other than scientists. Carl Sagan (Cosmos) knew much about this. We invented a word, Saganized, or Saganization, in which your fellow scientists frown on you for attempting to talk to the masses.”

However, I was able to extrapolate a more emotional, gut-level response from the Rock Doc around the very pedestrian but important question: What keeps you up at night?

“What keeps me awake at night is the evidence in the ice core records of Greenland and Antarctica that climate can change rapidly – in as little as 20 years,” E. Kirsten Peters told me. “The change can be either in a warmer or cooler direction. For reasons I don’t understand, this well-known scientific evidence has not been discussed in the public sphere for ordinary citizens to learn about. One of the reasons I wrote my book was to help get such facts into the public discussion. When I lie awake at night and think about climate, it’s sudden changes in either the warmer or cooler direction that terrify me. Climate is fragile and changes quickly at times – that’s the lesson from the ice cores. It’s not a picture we like to look at, but it’s the best evidence we have for how the natural world works.”

Much of the thinking and heavy lifting around climate change and water scarcity are centered in this part of the country. Our big university, WSU, and its various departments are researching the many-pronged impacts of global warming and climate disruption on food and water. This is serious business, managing the risks of climate disruption on our Pacific Northwest agriculture, as we can see in the many projects carried out by WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR).

Just the impact of meat and working on better grass and production practices could save enough water each year in the entire industry to supply the water needs of a city the size of Seattle – 3.5 million folks.

Robin White, lead researcher of a WSU study appearing in the journal Food Policy, found that consumers paying a little more (10 percent) for environmentally-labeled meat products could result in water savings cited above in the production of meat tied to feed growing and livestock husbandry practices. The U.S. produced 26 billion pounds of beef in 2013, and using this figure, White in her report estimates that 76 to 129 billion gallons of water could be saved annually.

The scramble around climate change is tied to trillions in dollars. WSU-Tri-Cities just received a million dollars from the Department of Defense to study climate change’s effects on military facilities.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink

It’s easy to get caught up in the science, technology and economics around climate change, defaulting to the players from the superpower USA or economic giant like China. The reality is water for this continent’s native people is more precious than gold or any profits derived from its privatization or hording. Here, a young person, on the front lines of water wars, says it best about humanity’s connection to water.

“Women are protectors of the water, we have water in our body, we carry a child, and they’re covered in water, so we’re meant to do that. We’re supposed to do that. We know the law, we know our treaties, we know what we’re supposed to protect,” said Haley Bernard.

Last October, Bernard, 22, of Pictou Landing, Nova Scotia, was on the front lines of a clash with Canadian RCMPs who were using SWAT and military gear to try and stop a blockade of a highway leading to SWN Resources’ Canada operation. This is a private company that has been searching for shale gas in the area since spring 2014. Bernard, a graduate of Cape Breton University in Mi’kmaq Studies, was risking arrest and injury to support the tribe whose land is where the potential fracking could take place.

It’s not just first nations or original peoples heeding the call to action to protect our water. Bart Mihailovich, 32, had been Spokane River Waterkeeper for several years and is now with Waterkeeper Alliance. He’s clear about the value of water to his generation and the next and the next: “Water is elemental. It’s life. The fact that anyone in an elected office or a place of power would or could do anything to harm our water’s future and the future of our water resources is beyond insane. It’s criminal and it’s dangerous.”

Shifting Jetstream, Energized Up flows, Melting Glaciers, Vanishing Towers of Snow

Rivers, like all natural water bodies, hold a power over common men and women and those with a literary bent. Norman Maclean (A River Runs Through It) is one of my favorite writers when I start thinking about rivers in this part of the country: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

Head up the road to Cheney, WA, and one can talk to native Indian, Vandana Asthana, an Eastern Washington University associate professor of political science, about international relationships and comparative politics for which she researches impacts of water pollution and shortages, as well as the entire hydrological cycle, on cultures and civilization in general. While she studies water on a global scale, her spiritual roots dovetail with science and her early gestation as a child learner in Kanpur, India. She told me years ago about the tanning industry centered in Kanpur, and its incredible toll on people’s lives and health, as well as on water supplies, a by-product of a very toxic industry.

For this piece, she was asked about our own neck of the woods and the travails and challenges to our security through water, the simple two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms that define our planet in the solar system.

“The complexity and dynamics of wicked problems are such that a lack of understanding of these issues may result in the occasional failure of policy change or adjustment,” Asthana said. “Yet water is a resource that we cannot do without. Its function ranges from serving human life, providing food and drinking water, regulating health, providing recreation and aesthetics, and serving as a powerful cultural symbol and political weapon.”

For Vandana Asthana, the interconnected global water system is uncertain largely because of so many varied inputs and stressors, one that is “interdependent … plagued by the drivers of environmental change, which include material, institutional, and behavioral factors.” She, like many I’ve talked with over the last 30 years, view current paradigms and planning and management approaches as more reactive than really adequate for large changes in the entire cycle.

While Mihailovich is fighting for tributaries and watersheds, he sees Eastern Washington as lackadaisical around the very idea of thinking about water or better yet, contemplating the conservation of it and embracing the Spokane Valley — Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer as a “valuable resource” to protect. “Because it is. Not only is it our sole source drinking water from some 700,000 people, it’s also vital for the health of the Spokane River — from a water quantity and quality standpoint. And, with populations in North Idaho and Spokane county continuing to grow, that source will have to be sufficient and sustainable for many more people.”

Every Drop Counts: 2 billion Years and the Same Old Water

It’s a beautiful thing, the water cycle, considering water got to earth through asteroids. Sure, after that Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago, water molecules were part of the flow of elements that gestated and congealed into the Sun and its planets 9 billion years after the Bang. For a billion years, the Earth was hot and possessed no blanketing atmosphere. Recent extended research points to the comets and asteroids pummeling earth, with asteroids containing the highest concentration of ingredients that would not vaporize when heated. Ingredients that resulted in water.

The water we bathe with and drink, for all intents and purposes, is part of that coalescing of forces that have made Earth the water planet. Each molecule of H2O is the original stuff of that ice and molecule delivery system, most likely via asteroids by the tens of thousands.

“The impacts of climate change will be felt in both surface water and groundwater resources,” Vandana says. Geography’s not going to change and river courses will stay in place in the foreseeable geological future, so it’s the five big things around water that worry her. “. . . . water precipitation, evaporation, floods, velocity of water runoff, consumption of water by plants and animals are likely to change life, and the quality of life, drastically.”

Again, collective heads in the sand might be an “easy” self-deluded option when one lives in a sprawling and water rich-area like the Spokane Valley and Inland Northwest. But extreme weather events will spell disaster for infrastructure, farming and water availability. “Groundwater recharge, which is largely done during the wet season, may be affected, leading to its further exploitation in the dry seasons,” Vandana Asthana said.

Computer Models, A Million Scientists’ Predictions … Yet it Takes One Baby to See it

There are all sorts of predictions about and models on what will play out in Washington State tied to global temperatures rising 3, 4 and possibly 7 degrees by 2100; 5 degrees Fahrenheit rise by 2080 in our region means many cities like Olympia, Seattle, Ocean Shores and others will be inundated with sea water rises. The entire house of cards that capitalism and our economy are built upon will collapse.

It is a pretty cut and dried definition of water crisis that speaks volumes more on global security, regional health, and local threats and emerging crises. For Vandana Asthana, she frames it as a scientist and policy wonk: “A water crisis can be physical/hydrological or social which is constructed as a result of bad management practices, structural or institutional failures – question of access, availability and quality create a crisis.”

Bart Mihailovich’s role as Spokane Riverkeeper was representing the river’s users and those in the watershed relying on the River. It was about clean water and legally upholding that right for Spokane. Now, he is working for all the “waterkeepers” in the global network. This entails looking for those water advocates around the world, in big and small communities, and assisting them with the tools and empowering their voices to fight for their waterways.

His wife Sara just gave birth in December to their first child, Emmett, and really, what keeps Bart up at night is worrying about the sort of future his son will have in 32 years. This is the real testament to a life of activism and foresight, thinking about our sons’ and granddaughters’ lives and what holds in store for their grandchildren’s futures. Global warming and a burgeoning global population of 9 billion people will make any concerned citizen sleepless.

“My generation is just now starting to tip toe towards the crucial steps and actions that are needed to save the planet, but it’s pretty obvious that we’re far too late,” Bart said. “So Emmett is going to see a world with far fewer species than we know now. Major cities like Miami, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco and others are going to look quite a bit different. The mountains of Montana that I grew up playing in and the outdoors of my wife’s native land Alaska likely won’t have the same seasons they did when I was younger, and all of my favorite rivers through Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon probably won’t have the same amount of water readily available for them. It’s likely that Emmett won’t hunt, fish, ski, hike or play the same way that I did. It’s going to be different. And probably not for the better.”

The policy wonk Asthana correlates the value of her Hindu culture in framing the importance of water and what maybe all governmental bodies should be holding: There is a strong spiritual connection to all water and rivers in India. It is for many “a bridge between the human and divine.” Rivers are seen as deities. “When someone visits your house the first thing to offer is water,” she says. “Water to a thirsty person earns you good in the eyes of god.”

No matter how water secure we might seem to be or actually be, the reality is that places like California, with a GDP bigger than 50 or more countries’ GNPs, is facing a devastating drought and water pressures tied to 10 years of warming temperatures and population growth. In turn, the Inland Northwest is a very attractive place for those climate/environmental refugees (envirogees) to migrate to, putting us in a place between a rock and a hard spot: More people equals more demands equals less water. Remember that stat? There will be 11 billion humans on the water planet by 2100.

Paul Kirk Haeder has covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/ community journalism in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, and PK12 districts. He organized part-time faulty. His book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. He blogs from Waldport, Oregon. Read his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.