Washington State Preparing for Climate Change

State of Preparedness: Washington

In the past few months, a number of states have released plans detailing how they plan to prepare for climate change. I have reviewed efforts by Maryland, Oregon, and Pennsylvania so far. Today we’ll look at Washington’s adaptation planning effort.

In Washington state, adaptation planning was divided into four topic areas and undertaken by working groups made up of experts in each area.  Those topic areas are

  • Infrastructure and Communities
  • Working Lands and Waters 
  • Human Health and Security
  • Species, Habitats and Ecosystems

The working groups released their interim recommendations earlier this year. These recommendations still need to be reviewed, integrated, and prioritized by state agencies and combined into a final report, but a lot of good work has been done here, and it’s worth seeing where Washington is heading.

American Rivers’ staff in the state helped develop the recommendations in the Infrastructure and Communities chapter, and that’s the one I’ll be focusing on here. The chapter begins by identifying a range of risks that Washington is facing as a result of climate change, with a significant focus on changing water availability.

The real meat is in the recommendations, which provide a thought-provoking range of options for helping the state figure out how to meet its future water needs in a changing climate. The group focuses first on low-cost options such as water conservation, efficiency, and reuse. The report specifically recommends the development of new efficiency standards for industrial and agricultural users. The chapter also focuses on identifying and protecting key water infiltration areas and integrating water supply considerations into land use planning.

On the water quality side, the group recommends increasing the use of green infrastructure and references Maryland’s stormwater law as a model. The report also recommends integrating consideration of climate change into funding for water and wastewater projects.

There are also some interesting recommendations on flood management. In addition to improving assessment and mapping of flood risk as conditions change, the group urges the state to work with local communities to restore and protect floodplains and wetlands and to consider increased flood risk in the design and siting of public infrastructure

Washington’s interim adaptation report contains some of the most extensive and actionable recommendations of any state plan that has been developed so far. While some of the proposed actions are vague, there are many concrete suggestions for moving toward implementation. For example, the authors list more efficient water use as a goal. In order to accomplish this, they propose a number of specific parts of the Washington code that could be updated and reformed. There is rich detail and a thorough consideration of specific avenues for implementation throughout these chapters.

The state deserves to be commended for these detailed recommendations and for explicitly prioritizing the lowest-cost, most flexible adaptation solutions such as water efficiency, green infrastructure, and wetland restoration. The authors recognize that better planning, more detailed information, and some new infrastructure will be helpful in the struggle to prepare for climate change impacts. But the recommendations in the Infrastructure and Communities chapter as well as the others also reflect a couple key principles:

  1. There is a need to embrace ecosystem-based approaches that will help people and wildlife survive this transition
  2. We must avoid maladaptive responses that work in the short term for a segment of the population but increase long term vulnerability.

This holistic, integrated approach is precisely where we need to be going, and it’s heartening to see this plan move in the right direction.

State agencies are expecting to complete the climate response strategy by December 2011. Then the hard work begins. However, this report is an exceptionally promising first step that encompasses a wide range of issues, promotes sustainable, low-cost strategies, and provides specific proposals for implementation. Washington state agencies should maintain the richness contained in these interim recommendations and move forward quickly to help the state prepare for the ongoing impacts of climate change.