Having just watered the begonias in my deck pots, I am now suffering the condition gardeners know as Deck Pot Shame. Begonias aren’t even that thirsty, not nearly as thirsty as impatiens—I say self-righteously as I size up my neighbor’s blinding impatiens—but we are in a drought. Governor Jay Inslee declared it this spring.
On the heels of a typically soggy Northwest rainy season.
Everywhere we look we’re stunned by images of a world in want of water. Girls in line at a slow-dripping village tap in sub-Saharan Africa. The cracked bed of what used to be a lake in central California. As I write, California governor Jerry Brown has just addressed year five and counting of the worst drought in that state’s recorded history by mandating a 25 percent reduction in water use. Haunting the California scenario is the real prospect of something ominously called megadrought: the cyclical 20- to 30-year dryout that last desiccated the American West around the 12th century. Should global warming continue unabated, NASA scientists put the next megadrought in the Southwest and the plains, starting plus or minus 50 years from now.
It seems we built and populated the American West during an epoch of atypical wetness. Oops.
Which brings us, as atypical wetness usually does, to the Pacific Northwest. The drought Inslee declared? This winter it looked an awful lot like pouring rain. That’s because warming temperatures caused precipitation to fall as water instead of snow. Problem is, it’s the snowpack that waters us, feeding our streams and giving us predictable summer water. For rain to water us as efficiently, we need better methods of storing it.
Western Washingtonians are people of water, inhabiting a land whose regional lore—native flood myths to the Twilight series—oozes liquid imagery. Just as our landscapes were born in a gush of water at the end of the Ice Age, our population arrived, in part, on the heels of devastations like the 1930s Dust Bowl in the Great Plains, the worst drought in three centuries, which drew the thirsty to the oases of the coast. It’s no wonder, then, that we built our identity on the assumption of enough. When your city covers an area that’s over 40 percent water, that seems ordained by nature herself.
Then you get a winter full of rain and a spring without news of water rationing (thanks to Seattle Public Utility’s universally heralded foresight in the tricky calculus of water management)—and, well…you can see why William Shatner boldly went where no man has gone before, calling for a long tap that stretches from the Northwest to California. Turns out he was just playing, but the assumption that fueled his quip was based on a broadly accepted given. We have enough. Right?
Truth is, we don’t know anymore.
Climate scientists are skeptical of the term new normal, as it implies a normal to begin with. But “variability within progressively warmer temperatures”—that they can get behind. Most agree that the winter of 2014–15 saw temperatures as warm as what we’ll be feeling in some 50 years. They further agree that rain will continue and probably increase. That threatens to bring too much water where we don’t want it (flowing through riverside houses, lapping at the storefronts of downtown Olympia) and not nearly enough where we do (swelling the streams that bear fish and the rivers that irrigate farmland).
To adapt, we’ll need to switch paradigms: for starters, moving from a snowpack mentality to a water storage mentality, probably by building more reservoirs. Tougher yet may be switching up a more personal paradigm: moving from our Northwest sense of plenty to a more realistic sense of water as a limited resource—in the face of rain that continues to fall. Californians have been perfecting their sense of scarcity through three major droughts since the ’70s. Northwesterners—though conservation minded, especially since the water rationing of the early ’90s—haven’t had to work that muscle as hard.
The Northwest drought will hit us in unexpected places. If SPU continues to manage things as well as it has, we’ll have water to drink—but we’ll undoubtedly lose fish populations. This summer’s worry is that pink salmon, whose surging numbers have been such a success story in the Northwest, won’t encounter sufficient water in shrinking rivers to carry them to their spawning beds. Trees on the eastern flanks of the Cascades will die from lack of water or burn in increasing forest fires. Prices will go up on locally grown vegetables and fruits, even electricity. Perhaps most vividly, the more intense manifestations of global warming in other parts of the country will pour so many “climate migrators” into the Pacific Northwest, we’ll be sharing our diminishing resources with more people.
Sure, nobody’s telling us how often to flush or rationing our water. Instead an entire ecosystem is quietly changing. As I write this in June, headlines in The Seattle Times announce a leaping fire in the Olympics and a warm-weather stink bug infestation. Changing ecosystem indeed.
For my part, I’m rethinking next summer’s deck pots—moving away from the heavy drinkers and toward a more austere drought landscape. Sages. Sedums, maybe.