Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Of Salmon and Bagpipes

I’ve lived in Whatcom County since 1996, and it has always seemed a bit like Brigadoon to me. The land that time forgot. A county-dwelling friend claims that this aura is related to the County's staunchly conservative electorate: “These are the folks who ran as far away from civilization as they could, until the water and the border stopped them from going any further.”

Maybe that’s why the idea of “planning” meets so much resistance in our county. “Planning” means that change is going to happen, that the future may be different from the past, and that change might make us do things differently.

No change will be bigger than climate change. The scientific evidence of climate change’s effects makes it clear that our future is going to be quite different from our past. And when I say “our future,” I mean our future. Right here in Whatcom County.

Just yesterday, for example, a peer-reviewed article confirmed what we already know: that climate change is giving salmon a tough time. As NOAA Fisheries states
Many salmon rivers around Puget Sound have experienced increasing fluctuations in flow over the past 60 years, just as climate change projections predict - and that's unfortunate news for threatened Chinook salmon, according to a new analysis of salmon survival and river flow.
More pronounced fluctuations in flow can scour away salmon eggs and exhaust young fish, especially when lower flows force adult fish to lay eggs in more exposed areas in the center of the channel.
Flow fluctuates so wildly because of bigger storms, more droughts, and more water falling as rain instead of snow. This study makes it clear that these fluctuations are already happening – this is not just something that may happen in the future.

Oh well, you may be thinking, that’s OK, we’ll just get our salmon from British Columbia. Except that a recent Canadian study shows that warming waters in B.C. rivers will give chinook salmon heart attacks. Literally.

So maybe we shouldn’t “plan” to outsource our salmon dinners
These studies, and many more like them, show that the future will not be like the past. In fact, “the future” is now. It’s already on the job. What can we do about it?

Whatcom County is in the middle of its most important planning exercise: the update of its 2016 Comprehensive Plan. The Comprehensive Plan is supposed to identify and protect frequently flooded areas. It’s supposed to protect surface and groundwater resources. It’s supposed to protect fish and wildlife habitat. Climate change will affect all of these “protected” resources. We could -- in fact, we should -- plan to avoid and ameliorate the effects of climate change.

But I’ve been watching County planning for a while now, and I have a prediction based on past performance. I predict that Whatcom County will continue to plan for the past, because that’s where its most vocal residents are the most comfortable.

The County will continue to promote land conversion that way it’s always been done in Whatcom County-- without worrying about water supply, or how much pavement covers watersheds, or whether farm land is protected, or even whether impact fees are in place that could help to pay for some of the impacts of land conversion. The County will continue to give the very highest priority to making sure that tens of thousands of new houses can be built on farm land and in rural areas, even when the new houses’ new wells deprive salmon of the water that they need.

In short, Whatcom County will continue to plan for 1950, not for 2050.

Now, some readers are shaking their heads, saying “I live in the most progressive community in the universe! We love the environment! What are you talking about?” And that may be right, as far as it goes. Psychologically, if not geographically.

As Gail Collins has pointed out, there’s a large and increasing difference between what she calls “crowded places” and “empty places.” "Empty places" are a state of mind, not necessarily a geography; Texas views itself as an empty place, Collins notes, despite the fact that 80% of its population lives in urban areas

In our crowded place, Bellingham, it can be easy to stay cocooned in our proto-Brooklyn hipster vibe. But the fact is, our mini-Brooklyn is located smack in the middle of mini-Texas, when it comes to voting patterns and cultural affiliations.

Speaking of Texas – we have a lot of folks in Whatcom County who would find Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s favorite climate joke to be really funny: “It’s cold! Al Gore told me this wouldn’t happen!”

Best available science recognizes that climate change is already upon us. Whatcom County is required to use best available science when it protects critical areas.

But will it?

Or is that the sound of laughter over Al Gore jokes that I hear, almost muffling the faint strain of a bagpipe, as Brigadoon fades back into the past?


  1. The Brigadoon metaphor cuts both ways. A real problem the pop-environmental movement faces is one I have summarized as, "Demanding we recreate what never existed."

    As you well know, no one with credibility on any of the many sides of the climate discussion disagrees that climate change is an on-going phenomena. The questions that should be asked, but never are asked include:

    Is climate change a good thing or a bad thing or (I think most likely) both?
    How much influence do we (human kind) actually have over the processes that create climate change?
    How can we most effectively take advantage of the opportunities climate change seems to be presenting us with and, most effectively address the challenges of climate change?
    When we've managed to screw up an approach (The Nooksack's minimum in-stream flow methodology assures regular violations as it is based on an averaging system long discredited by even ecology as an appropriate methodology) what are we willing to do to change our approaches?
    Can we build community consensus around the idea that good science and effective approaches should take precedence over politics?

    And others.

    Unlike Brigadoon which only has to deal with change for one day every hundred years, we have to create solutions to problems every day. Unfortunately, votes and grant money aren't attracted to rational approaches to real problems.

    1. Not going to argue climate change with you, Jack.

      The Pentagon reported last year that climate change poses an immediate threat to national security, with increased risks from terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty and food.shortages. There just isn't a whole lot of upside to increased terrorism and infectious disease.

  2. A big part of the problem in Bellingham is the local government telling people that everything we are doing is environmental and a net gain.. like all the development planned for the waterfront. Did you know that all the shoreline restoration we do for people and pets and watercraft is also habitat restoration? So folks just hop on their mountain bikes, or get in their kayaks and take off for a pleasant day, feeling assured everything in their city is just fine. With appropriate education, I am not sure if some people in Bellingham would be more outspoken. The County is another story, and I agree with your assessment. I testified about the need to use the comp. plan as a chance to reflect the significant changes we are living through, and it was more than clear that they intend to proceed with business as usual.

  3. Jean, since your post is almost 3 months old, I don't expect this comment will ever be read, but you never know.

    In 2001, Jonathan Witten published "Carrying Capacity & the Comprehensive Plan: Establishing & Defending Limits to Growth" in the Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review (Vol 28, Issue 4, Article 7 - see link below). The title of the article speaks for itself.

    The State of Oregon requires its cities and counties to take into account the carrying capacity of various natural resources (including water) when comprehensive plans are updated. (See Medford, OR website at link below).

    It's counter-intuitive to think that Whatcom County has reached its limit in terms of water capacity considering the populations of Vancouver, BC and Seattle. When I asked a Huxley professor about this, he explained that Vancouver is served by the vastly larger Fraser River basin and Seattle is served by 3 major dams and reservoirs along the Skagit River (George Dam, Diablo Dam, and Ross Dam).

    Perhaps it's time to consider the work of Professor Witten and incorporate carrying capacity and limits to growth in our comprehensive plans. Doing so will allow local governments to apply appropriate regulatory controls to ensure that capacities are not exceeded. All it would take is a little political courage and some backbone. Got spine?

    Link to Witten's article:

    Link to Medford, OR website (2nd paragraph: "carrying capacity"):

    1. I hear you, Larry, over the annoying background whine of the bagpipes of Brigadoon. But unless and until the good people of Bellingham provide our elected with some spine, we'll continue to live in Brigadoon. Even though it's a dumb place to be.

    2. Your comment begs the question: "What can the good people of Bellingham do to provide our elected with some spine?"

    3. Hmmm. I was thinking more about the electeds we already have.