Using new data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Bonneville Power Administration is funding two new studies to improve its understanding of the effects climate change could have on the Northwest.
Evidence of global and regional climate change is mounting. BPA says the recently released National Climate Assessment confirmed what BPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation found in 2011, at the conclusion of a joint study on climate change: Northwest temperatures are expected to rise 1 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit by the 2020s, and 2 to 5 degrees by the 2040s.
Summary of key findings:
- Precipitation. Overall annual precipitation changes in the study were minimal. However, some of the models showed large seasonal changes, including more extreme wet and dry periods, some wetter falls and winters, and some drier summers.
- Snowpack. More winter precipitation would fall as rain instead of snow, producing more runoff in the winter, earlier runoff in the spring and less water in the summer.
- Annual water runoff. The runoff volume from January through April is projected to exceed normal flows at The Dalles Dam by 20 to 85 percent. The June through August runoff declines, varying between 65 and 95 percent of normal flows at The Dalles Dam. Normal flow, or the historical reference climate period, is the average of flows from 1970 to 1999. Higher flows from January through April would generate more hydropower and produce more spill at most dams. Hydropower production would then decline at the same time increased temperatures drive greater summer power use.
- Flood risk management. Flood risk management procedures will need to anticipate that runoff may come weeks earlier, shifting the peak runoff from April through August to March through July. Earlier releases of water from reservoirs at the flood risk management projects may be needed to capture the early runoff. Impacts to the timing of federal hydro system operations could also affect other spring and summer objectives such as flows for fish and other ecosystem functions.
- Energy consumption. Although population increase is a much larger driver for future energy demands in the region, higher temperatures in the summer will result in more energy use to cool homes and businesses. Warmer temperatures in the winter will reduce energy use for heating. BPA estimates that the demand for federal power in the 2020s due to climate change could increase 1 to 3 percent in July and decrease 3 to 4 percent in December.
- Fish. The increase in streamflows from January through April would result in higher generation and increased spill at most dams. Reduced flows during July and August might impact the federal agencies’ ability to meet future Biological Opinion objectives, including flow management.
In fall 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a series of new Global Climate Models that reflect the latest climate change science. In response to this wealth of new data, BPA’s Technology Innovation group is co-funding two projects that will take advantage of these new climate models and help the region build on the efforts from the previous joint study.
While BPA is providing funding and staff support for these studies, the Corps and Reclamation are also contributing staff time and expertise for analysis and interpretation. The three agencies recently signed a memorandum of understanding committing them to the effort through 2017.
These new climate change hydrologic data sets are being produced principally by researchers from the University of Washington and Portland State University. These two new research studies differ both from each other and from the original joint study in 2011. However, they both build on the lessons learned from the late 2000s by using finer timescales (daily instead of monthly), improved downscaling methods, and using three different hydrologic models instead of just one. As a result, these research projects will produce many more possible scenarios.
The 2011 joint study yielded 19 separate streamflow scenarios, but these new efforts will produce dozens, perhaps more than 100. Finally, the UW study includes glacial changes – an important detail that was studied only indirectly in the previous effort.
Some of the differences between the research studies could benefit not just the region, but the global climate change research community. The complex ways in which both projects will use the newest Global Climate Models, downscale the data into more usable forms via streamflow forecasting models, and tune the hydrologic models themselves, will differ at each step in the modeling process.
The hope is that this aspect of the research will not only provide more certainty about the potential range of streamflows that climate change might bring to the Columbia River Basin, but also help researchers understand whether the uncertainties in model outputs are caused by climate change itself, or caused by the tools, models and methods that scientists are using.
Erik Pytlak, manager of BPA’s Weather and Streamflow Forecasting group, is also the BPA project manager for both climate change studies. He sums up the benefits of new climate change data, saying, “The reason you do studies like this is so you can make informed, prudent, scientifically-based decisions. You don’t want to correct for the wrong thing, or ‘correct’ in the wrong direction.”
The 2014 water year has provided a good example of the uncertainty that river operators must contend with and the benefits of good modeling, as well as the importance of understanding uncertainties. As the winter began, increasing drought signals in the basin prompted BPA and its partners to steel itself for a low water year, and they began to manage the river appropriately. Then, in early February, the weather and streamflow forecasting team started to see reliable signals of rapidly improving water conditions in the basin.
As the forecasters’ confidence grew and the snow began to pile up in the mountains, river operators shifted their management strategy to accommodate more water. More water is generally good for power production, but a hydroelectric system poised for a dry period that turns out to be a wetter one could result in prolonged oversupply problems, or in the extreme, serious flooding concerns. More accurate streamflow modeling gave managers more time to prepare and adjust to the changing conditions.
Climate change is a consideration in much of BPA’s work, as well as that of its partners. In addition to its potential effects on power production, irrigation and flood risk mitigation, climate change is directly relevant to the future of the Columbia River Treaty and to fish and wildlife protection. Consideration of climate change is also required for National Environmental Policy Act analyses of large capital projects, such as new transmission lines.
Later this decade, the three federal agencies will not only integrate the new climate change data into their ongoing modeling and planning efforts, but the study results also will be available for others in the region or farther afield to use.
BPA’s Technology Innovation group funds a wide range of promising projects with topics that span BPA’s business needs. In addition to the two climate-focused projects highlighted here, others in the Technology Innovation portfolio address climate change indirectly through their potential to reduce the need for additional power generation.
Flood-irrigation practices in the early days of irrigation on the Eastern Snake River Plain boosted water levels in the aquifer, which lay beneath it. But as irrigation efficiencies improved, less water reached the aquifer, contributing to its decline.
One issue now is in trying to get more water to the aquifer by recharging it.
The state of Idaho and irrigation and canal companies have been attempting to “balance the budget” of water going in and water coming out, but it’s a complicated endeavor, said Mike McVay, technical hydrologist with Idaho Department of Water Resource.
Managed recharge of the aquifer does offer a way to balance the budget, but it depends on where you recharge, he said during the Idaho Irrigation Equipment Association’s January conference in Burley.
Water injected for recharge doesn’t stay in the aquifer and instead goes back to the Snake River fairly quickly, making balancing the budget a continuous effort, he said.
To assist in analysis of recharge, McVay has modeled the results of recharge efforts from 2007 to 2011.
During that time, irrigation and canal companies on the Eastern Snake River Plain participated in recharge efforts at several locations, sending 100,000 acre-feet per year into the aquifer.
But “the aquifer is not a very good bathtub, it leaks a lot,” he said. “Water tends to go back to the river.”
That’s not necessarily bad. It depends on water-management goals, with different benefits at different sites. In addition to raising aquifer-storage levels, those goals could be increasing flows in the river, springs and reservoirs, he said.
The goal is to keep water in the aquifer for people to use, but it’s a complicated issue. The state has to balance obligations for the Swan Falls Agreement — which balances water uses for agriculture and water needs for hydropower generation — and river and spring flows to keep water rights whole, he said.
McVay’s models help evaluate recharge efforts by analyzing where the water is going.
In the theoretical modeling, McVay kept pumping water into the model, much more than the recharge sites can take, to see where the water would go. In both the theoretical and actual modeling, the impact on the aquifer was small.
If it isn’t continuously recharged, the water will leak into the river, no matter how much is put in. That’s because the aquifer is like a big bowl with a hole in the bottom, he said.
In addition, the theoretical modeling doesn’t take into account other factors, such as weather or physical limitations, he said.
It is a tool that shows how the aquifer behaves. But the bottom line is the aquifer leaks and sooner or later, water is going to go back to the river, he said.
The take-home message is the aquifer has to continually be recharged or it will all leak out, he said.
Skagit County farmer Todd Frankenfield recently found himself on the unpleasant end of dramatic changes in federal flood insurance. “It’s another government deal just rammed down our throats,” he said.
Landowners across the country face higher premiums as the National Flood Insurance Program phases out subsidized coverage. The program was established in 1968 to reduce losses and help landowners rebuild after flooding. As it expanded over the years, the claims paid were either below or in line with premiums paid.
However, in the past decade, the U.S. has seen increasingly turbulent weather patterns and natural disasters. The hurricane season of 2005, the U.S. was slammed by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, resulting in $17.7 billion in claims paid out, far in excess of annual premiums.
According to the Government Accounting Office, as of November 2012 the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the insurance program, owed the U.S. Treasury approximately $20 billion and has not repaid any principal since 2010.
In 2012, Congress passed the Biggert-Water Flood Insurance Reform Act, ordering FEMA to make the flood insurance program actuarially sound — taking in enough premiums to cover expected claims.
David Miller, associate administrator of federal insurance and mitigation at FEMA, said the agency laid out plans for premium rate adjustments, requiring lenders and their regulators to demand flood coverage in proportion to the likelihood of flooding on properties they finance.
As a result, many policy-holders will see their rates increase 25 percent a year until their premiums reflect the full risk rate. Frankenfield and his wife, Julie, who raise miniature donkeys on a former dairy farm she inherited, have seen the results of those new requirements first-hand. They acquired a low-interest home equity line of credit loan, using their house as collateral with the understanding they would need to insure the home against flood damage, he said.
What he did not expect was that he would need a separate flood insurance policy on each building on the property, including several old barns, some of them with dirt floors. His total flood insurance coverage amounts to $120,000, which is $20,000 more than his maximum line of credit.
“They’re making us over insure everything,” he said. “It isn’t fair if you’ve got a $10,000 or $40,000 loan to need a million dollars of insurance.”
A mortgage lender confirmed that any loan made, modified or renewed that is secured by property in a flood zone must have flood insurance at replacement cost value. “Not just (for) a loan on the home,” Ed Hedlund of Washington Federal said. “Everything has to be insured.”
Though fewer than 2 percent of Washington Federal’s loans in eight Western states are in flood zones, he said, increased premiums may mean problems for landowners.
“Our regulator is the enforcer on this,” he said. “We have no choice, though people do get mad at us.”
Especially problematic is the requirement that when property changes hands, the new owner will bear the burden of what Frankenfield called “inflated costs.” He feared the changes would affect property values after learning about a nearby farm up for sale.
“The sale was going through, but the people backed out because of the flood insurance,” he said. “They came back with an offer $100,000 lower. I believe that this is just another nail in the farmer’s coffin.”
Greenbelt Land Trust has announced the acquisition of conservation easements on more than 300 acres of Willamette River frontage property in western Oregon’s Benton County that will benefit chinook salmon, cutthroat trout, Oregon chub, Pacific lamprey, western pond turtles and red-legged frogs.
The project will permanently protect important habitat for fish and wildlife identified in the Oregon Conservation Strategy. The purchases were made through a partnership with the existing landowners, the land trust, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and funding from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Meyer Memorial Trust.
Conservation easements allow for some traditional uses of the land, such as farming by the landowner, but permanently protect wildlife habitat. They also allow conversion of farmland to restoration and conservation purposes. The easements are effective in the Willamette Valley where 96 percent of the land is privately owned.
The 319-acre parcel includes Harkens Lake, a significant historic side-channel of the Willamette River that is critical habitat for native fish populations.
“This project is an integral part of creating opportunities for broad-scale floodplain habitat restoration on the Willamette River,” according to Ken Bierly, deputy director of Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.
The conservation of Harkens Lake is made possible through a partnership with landowners Gary, Jenny and Steve Horning and Mark and Sherie Adams, a collaboration that will continue as the partners prepare to restore the property’s floodplain forests and riparian areas to their historic conditions. Restoration of these forests decreases erosion and flood damage from seasonal inundation throughout the 100-year floodplain.
“Our family has worked and lived on the Willamette River for five generations, which is why we take such pride in showing we can work around the river sustainably. We know the health of our crops depends on the health of the river system. Our goal for restoration is to utilize important floodplain areas to improve water quality and protect the valuable farm land that our family farm depends on,” Gary Horning said.
“This important work can only be accomplished through partnerships with private landowners, non-profits, foundations and state and federal agencies,” said Michael Pope, GLT executive director.
“We’re facing a monumental task in fish recovery and riparian restoration in the Willamette Valley, and we must all work together. We are extremely pleased to be able to complete this transaction, and grateful to all our partners who work with us to protect and restore environmentally sensitive lands.”
Funding from this project was dedicated through:
Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board through its Willamette Special Investment Partnership. The goal is to identify and implement high-priority land conservation, fish passage and habitat flow restoration projects that contribute to the enhancement of resident and migratory fish populations in the mainstem and tributaries of the Willamette River.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Willamette Wildlife Mitigation Program which was created to manage the funds dedicated to the state of Oregon by BPA for wildlife habitat mitigation in the Willamette Valley. The agreement requires a substantial investment in wildlife and fish habitat restoration over the next 15 years.
Bonneville funding helps fulfill an agreement that Oregon made in 2010 to protect nearly 20,000 acres of Willamette Basin wildlife habitat. The agreement dedicates stable funding from electric ratepayers for 15 years to safeguard Willamette habitat for native species, supporting state efforts to protect the Willamette Basin and fulfilling BPA’s responsibility under the Northwest Power Act to offset the impacts of federal flood control and hydropower dams.
A flood, loosed late October, when southwest Washington’s Condit Dam was breached has literally coated the lower White Salmon River in layers of various thickness of fine, dark sediment.
But researchers predict that the river’s own dynamics make it a prime candidate to clean itself and restore the coarser, gravelly river bed needed for native fish to spawn and rear.
“If you look at the White Salmon now…. It’s hammered,” researcher Andrew Wilcox said. “If you go there now there’s a lot of mud.”
The University of Montana assistant professor is leading a research project aimed at assessing how the river “responds” to the breaching of the dam and a return to a free flowing state.
“It’s a beautiful natural experiment,” Wilcox said of the chance to monitor how the river moves large pulses of sediment that have the potential to snuff out aquatic life.
The blasting of a tunnel through the base of Condit allowed the release of sediment that had been collecting since the dam was completed in 1913. It was estimated that between 1.6 million to 2.2 million cubic yards of sediment would be discharged into the White Salmon River immediately following tunnel’s opening.
Wilcox and one of his graduate students will monitor the lower White Salmon over the next two years to see how well it refreshes itself. The study focuses on sediment transport, or the lack thereof, as well as channel evolution, and habitat response.
The researchers will try to use the data gathered there as well as elsewhere to develop a better understanding of how ecosystems respond to such events. Information could be used in planning such events in the future. The study is being funded by the National Science Foundation.
Wilcox has been involved in similar research following the breaching of Marmot Dam on the Sandy River in northwest Oregon in 2007 and the Milltown Dam in western Montana in 2008.
“Reservoirs tend to trap sediment that is fine,” Wilcox said. When the sediment is released it tends to settle into the cobbled river bottoms that salmon and steelhead prefer for spawning, and changes the depth of pools where fish seek shelter. The study aims to monitor when, where and how that sediment is deposited, and how soon the river might mend itself. “How long do the changes last?” is a key question, he said.
“It is a system that is steep and confined and has a high transport capacity,” Wilcox said of the White Salmon. The slack water in the lowest part of the river “has less capacity to clear.”
The best thing to do is hope for a wet winter.
“It’s supposed to be a La Niña year,” Wilcox said. If the snowpack builds and strong flows develop in the spring, much of the sediment and at least some of the logs dislodged from the reservoir bottom should be swept downriver.
“I’m not going to say the system will be recovered by next summer” but the spring freshet should send it well on its way, Wilcox said.
The lower White Salmon River remains off limits as it has been since before the Oct. 26 breach, which quickly drained 1.8-mile-long Northwestern Lake. The dam is located 3.3 miles upstream from the river’s confluence with the Columbia River.
The river and its banks remains an unsafe place both above the dam in the reservoir reach and below the dam, according to PacifiCorp, which owns the dam. PacifiCorp, local law enforcement and experienced river experts are unanimous in urging the curious to stay away.
“Everyone saw the force of the river,” said Tom Hickey, PacifiCorp’s project manager. “Now downstream wherever the river narrows, there are logjams. In the former reservoir above the dam, the river is cutting through the sediment creating unstable slopes and moving debris such as buried logs as expected.
“Transported sediment is also building up in downstream areas. Working with our contractors, we have plans in place to deal with these obstructions, and they all require that everyone stay out of harm’s way and a safe distance from the river,” Hickey said.
The company’s options for clearing debris include using cranes and yarders or in some instances explosives to remove barriers. The entire area from the Northwestern Lake Road Bridge to the mouth of the White Salmon River continues to be an active construction zone and a dangerous place to be.
“We are still a long way from anyone attempting to boat the White Salmon River within the project area or downstream,” said Thomas O’Keefe, Pacific Northwest stewardship director of American Whitewater. “Those of us who know the river well urge everyone to stay safe and out of this river area until next fall when PacifiCorp has had a chance to complete the channel restoration work and address the severe hazards affecting navigability.”
PacifiCorp will continue to post updates on closures and restrictions in the Condit area as work proceeds. Go to www.pacificorp.com/condit for updates. Signs will remain posted in the immediate areas to remind the public about the closures.
Each used a different combination of tools, climate indices and calculations, but all five meteorologists offering forecasts during a conference Oct. 29 in Portland agreed that La Niña could well influence what sort of winter the Northwest and other parts of the globe will experience.
Four of the five predicted that the winter of 2011-2012 will be wetter than normal, though none predicted a repeat of 2010-11 when stronger La Niña signals prevailed. Snowpacks across the Pacific Northwest reached near record levels when a cool, wet late winter and spring settled on the region.
The forecast presenters were among more than 350 people gathered last Saturday for the 19th Annual Winter Forecast Conference sponsored by the Oregon Chapter of the American Meteorological Society. The session was held at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
La Niña conditions are occurring and expected to gradually strengthen and continue this winter, according to regularly updated forecasts from National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center. Those La Niña conditions, which include cooler than normal sea surface temperatures across must of the equatorial Pacific, seem to increase the likelihood that the Northwest will be colder and wetter than normal.
This winter CIG suggests that there are significantly increased odds of above average precipitation; odds favoring near normal or cooler than normal temperatures and that there are significantly increased odds of an above average snowpack, according to Dave Elson, lead forecaster for the Weather Service’s Portland office.
“La Niña, that’s really what drives this forecast,” Elson said. The agency says the region can “expect an active weather pattern this winter.”
Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission hydrologist/meteorologist Kyle Dittmer used a host of tools, including indices such as the El Nino/Southern Oscillation and the Multi-variate ENSO Index, and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, Sea-surface temperature departure forecasts, and comparisons of past years’ La Niña outcomes (analog years), including water year volume forecasts. And he even factors in sunspot cycles (though they are currently in a relatively neutral mode), which he says can influence global weather patterns.
He predicts the Columbia-Snake river basin will be “slightly below normal temperature-wise for the season” and should see above average precipitation. Dittmer said the region can expect some variability, which might include heavy rain events west of the Cascades, flooding, arctic blasts and high wind events. And rainy Portland should expect a few snow events from December to early March, he said.
His water supply forecast for January-July 2012 as measured at the lower Columbia’s The Dalles Dam is 117 million acre feet, or 109 percent of the recent 30-year average. In October 2010 Dittmer predicted that 2011 runoff would be 129 MAF, 120 percent of normal, and that early season forecast was in the ballpark. The observed, unregulated runoff was 141.7 MAF from January through July.
Former Oregon State Climatologist George Taylor, as well as Pete Parsons and Jim Little, likened the pattern being experienced now to one that began in the winter of 2007-2008 played out in 2008-2009. That pattern saw La Niña conditions building in the 2007-2008, lapsing to neutral conditions during the late spring-summer, then rebuilding the following winter.
“That’s about as good of a match as you can get,” Parson said of the strategy of identifying start-of-year conditions from the past that might apply to the current year’s forecast. The winter of 2008-2009 started out strong with an early season dump of snow even into lower level sites such as Portland but ended up being a relatively average precipitation year overall. Parsons and Little do forecasts for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Taylor said he expected November to be relatively benign with a transition in December into cooler, wetter conditions. He forecast December-February to be “very active” with above-average mountain snowfall for the winter; significant precipitation totals with possibility of flooding in the west, cooler than average temperatures and a good chance of low elevation snow, especially in January.
Parsons’ forecast followed the same track with above average temperatures early and weather turning stormy in December and January, followed by a cold February.
“Cold periods will have a better chance of being accompanied by snow this winter. Most mountain snowpacks should be above normal by late January-February,” Parsons’ forecast said.
La Niña, which contributed to extreme weather around the globe during the first half of 2011, has re-emerged in the tropical Pacific Ocean and is forecast to gradually strengthen and continue into winter.
Forecasters with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center have upgraded the La Niña Watch to a La Niña Advisory.
NOAA will issue its official winter outlook in mid-October, but La Niña winters often see drier than normal conditions across the southern tier of the United States and wetter than normal conditions in the Pacific Northwest and Ohio Valley.
“This means drought is likely to continue in the drought-stricken states of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center. “La Niña also often brings colder winters to the Pacific Northwest and the northern Plains, and warmer temperatures to the southern states.”
Climate forecasts from NOAA’s National Weather Service are intended to give communities advance notice of what to expect in the coming months so they can prepare for potential impacts. Seasonal hurricane forecasters factored the potential return of La Niña into NOAA’s updated 2011 Atlantic hurricane season outlook, issued in August, which called for an active hurricane season. With the development of tropical storm Nate last week, the number of tropical cyclones entered the predicted range of 14-19 named storms.
The strong 2010-11 La Niña contributed to record winter snowfall, spring flooding and drought across the United States, as well as other extreme weather events throughout the world, such as heavy rain in Australia and an extremely dry equatorial eastern Africa.
Average sea surface temperature anomalies indicate the re-emergence of La Niña in the tropical Pacific Ocean.
La Niña is a naturally occurring climate phenomenon located over the tropical Pacific Ocean and results from interactions between the ocean surface and the atmosphere. During La Niña, cooler-than-average Pacific Ocean temperatures influence global weather patterns. La Niña typically occurs every three-to-five years, and back-to-back episodes occur about 50 percent of the time. Current conditions reflect a re-development of the June 2010 / May 2011 La Niña episode.