Oregon Preparing for Climate Change

There’s been a recent flurry of climate-related activity as a number of states have begun to prepare for the impacts of climate change.

Oregon, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington state, and Wisconsin have all released climate preparedness plans in the past few months, and New York state just finished accepting comments on an interim version of its strategy. Maryland’s comprehensive effort is showing promise and in the coming weeks, I’ll be following that up on how each state is planning to reduce their vulnerability to climate change.

Oregon’s State of Preparedness

Oregon State FlagOregon wrapped up their Climate Change Adaptation Framework [pdf] in December 2010. American Rivers featured this effort in a recent webcast. The plan is an important first step in helping the state prepare for climate change, although it needs to be further developed and implemented to have a meaningful impact.

Oregon’s framework identifies climate change risks and proposes actions that can help minimize them. One of the key threads running through the whole plan is a focus on top priority, short-term, low-cost actions due to ongoing budget shortages. The plan also details longer-range solutions that can be undertaken as additional resources are available. This is a realistic and forward-looking approach to do what we can now and build toward what needs to happen when we have the capacity.

In total, Oregon’s adaptation framework identifies eleven key risks. It ranks the risks in terms of likelihood, from “very likely” to “more likely than not”. One of the “very likely” risks is a change in hydrology. There will be shifts in the amount, quality, and timing of water available in many parts of the state. This could threaten public drinking water systems, harm fish and wildlife, and drive demand for new dams and reservoirs. The plan recommends three near-term strategies to address this risk:

  1. Maintain the capacity to provide assistance to landowners to restore wetlands, uplands and riparian zones to increase the capacity for natural water storage
  2. Improve real-time forecasting of water delivery and basin yields to improve management of stored water
  3. Improve capacity to provide technical assistance and incentive to increase storage capacity and to improve conservation, reuse, and water use efficiency among all consumptive water uses

This is the right mix of strategies: Restoring the critical landscapes that provide clean water, improving conservation and efficiency efforts, and developing better information.

It’s worth noting that these three adaptation strategies are also recommended solutions for dealing with other climate change impacts such as threats to ecosystems and increased drought. This emphasizes that water efficiency and ecosystem protection and restoration are effective solutions for helping both people and wildlife adapt to a range of climate impacts.

Digging a little deeper, the next steps include establishing a program to implement water conservation projects and developing criteria and resources for funding projects. In the longer term, the plan recommends creating additional sources of funding for water infrastructure, developing policies to maintain instream flow, and improving institutional capacity for water supply planning and conflict resolution.

Oregon’s plan provides a solid foundation for protecting the state from climate change impacts. It targets the low-hanging fruit such as improving water use efficiency and restoring critical landscapes while identifying longer-term needs. It is a bit lacking in how it plans to move forward with these efforts. Simply stating that there is a need to develop a program to promote conservation efforts leaves many questions unanswered. In addition, the plan focuses more on new funding and technical assistance while paying less attention to the role of strengthened requirements and regulations. There is little discussion, especially in the near-term actions, of the need to improve protections for wetlands and other waters.

Another useful recommendation would be to ensure that sponsors of water supply projects maximize water efficiency efforts before receiving funding or permits through a state agency. Voluntary actions alone will not be sufficient, and counting on additional funding for new programs in the future is a risky strategy. Greater specificity and willingness to require conservation and ecosystem protection could significantly expand the plan’s effectiveness.

Oregon has taken a great first step in preparing the state for climate change, but it is just a beginning. A more detailed set of adaptation strategies is needed along with information on the relative costs and benefits of each one. Hopefully, the state will continue to refine its adaptation response, adopt more specific goals, and continue to push toward the most flexible and cost-effective solutions.