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Watershed planning, climate variability, and climate change: Bringing a global scale issue to the local level
Whitely Binder, L.C. 2002. Watershed planning, climate variability, and climate change: Bringing a global scale issue to the local level. MPA degree project, Evans School of Public Affairs, University of Washington, Seattle.
Washington State faces many challenges in managing its water resources. Growing population,
endangered species requirements, irrigation needs, water quality concerns, and demands for
hydroelectric power production are continuing to place strains on a system already struggling to
meet existing demands in many areas of the state.
Natural climate variability and human-induced climate change will exacerbate water resource
conflicts by altering the type and timing of precipitation throughout Washington. The likelihood
for increased precipitation and increased water shortages as a consequence of climate variability
and climate change, although seemingly counterintuitive, could result in significant disruptions
to natural environments, local economies, and community lifestyles. Early recognition and
assessment of potential climate impacts at a local level gives communities time to consider
options for action – rather than reaction – to climate variability and climate change, potentially
reducing the effects of these disruptive changes. This is particularly important given that the
watershed level is where the impacts will first be felt and where many of the difficult choices
must be made.
Few programs represent as significant an opportunity to incorporate planning for climate
variability and climate change into local water resource management decisions as Washington
State’s Watershed Planning Program. The Watershed Planning Program was established in 1998
with the adoption of the Watershed Management Act (Engrossed Substitute House Bill 2514) by
the Washington State legislature. The purpose of the act is to encourage the development of
comprehensive, long-range watershed planning through voluntary collaborative efforts at the
watershed level. The watershed plan must, at a minimum, address short-term and long-term
concerns related to water quantity in order to qualify for state funding. Watersheds are also
encouraged, but not required, to address planning needs related to instream flows, water quality,
and habitat. The program is administered by the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology).
The purpose of this study is to determine the extent to which the Watershed Planning Program
may serve as a vehicle for adapting to the hydrologic impacts of climate variability and climate
change at the watershed level. A survey of Ecology watershed planning staff was instrumental in
making this determination. The study also provides a preliminary assessment of natural,
socioeconomic, regulatory, and other factors that may leave a watershed more or less vulnerable
to climate impacts and/or inhibit adapting to climate impacts at the watershed level. The analysis
is focused on the 42 watersheds, or Watershed Resources Inventory Areas (WRIAs),
participating in Washington State’s Watershed Planning Program.