Water concerns farmers more than climate change
BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Water worries carry more weight than climate change for two Western Washington farmers.
Dairy farmer Jay Gordon sees too much water, and he doesn’t know whether to blame coal-burning in China or a warming Earth, but “for a bunch of us in the Chehalis, the question is over: It’s raining more.”
Gordon and his wife own a 600-acre dairy on the Chehalis River that his family homesteaded in 1872. The river has flooded many times during that span. The most recent major floods, in 2007 and 2009, left vast areas of farmland and a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5 underwater.
“The river gauge shows earlier floods, more floods and higher levels,” he said. “We’ve had four 100-year floods in 23 years’ time; 75 percent of the highest floods were in the past 23 years.”
He said fellow dairy farmers have told him, “I can’t handle one more of these. This is getting old.”
Gordon, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation, spoke during a recent symposium on “Climate Change and the Future of Food.” Symposium sponsors and coordinators included Washington State University, the University of Washington, government agencies, conservation districts, researchers and a shellfish producer.
Henry Bierlink, executive director of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission, said he doesn’t see climate change as a high priority.
“Everyone in ag knows about adapting to change,” he said. “It’s down on the list of worries.”
Water management and growing conditions are critical to berry growers, though, he said. Red raspberries grow well in northwestern Washington because of its temperate climate. If summers do get hotter, as some researchers predict, it will challenge the industry.
Because most water in the area is groundwater, he said, “I don’t see climate change changing that dramatically.”
As far as mitigating any changes, growers invest in research, in both the public and private sectors, for both immediate returns and for the long term.
“Breeding new varieties is 12-to-13-year process,” he said. “Planning way ahead is what we do.”
When it comes to water, Bierlink called Western water law “dysfunctional.”
“It creates more problems than solutions,” he said. “We have to get agencies to encourage what we know we have to do.”
Gordon pointed to the discrepancy in water availability on either side of the Cascades. The Yakima Basin is losing its snowmelt earlier, and the Chehalis Basin can’t hold what it’s getting.
“The Tulalip Tribe (in northwestern Washington) is looking at glaciers melting and asking, ‘What will we do when there’s no water for fish?’” he said. The answer, Gordon said, has to be more water storage on both sides. Farms, tribes and government have to cooperate to make that happen.
“We need a lot of dialogue and a lot of partnerships,” he said. “A diverse group of people is the only way we’re going to adapt. And we need information we can trust.”