Reduced Snowpack in Washington State

Discussion of Washington’s state strategy to combat problems associated with reduced snowpack.

Climate change has the potential for a wide range of implications and consequences.  It is important for government institutions to consider the possible outcomes and prepare contingencies for a changing climate and environment.  As a Washington resident, I am concerned that the state continues to work to reduce carbon emissions and prepare for changes in climate.  In response to the threat of climate change, Washington developed the Integrated Climate Response Strategy in 2012 to explore and prepare for affects in areas such as human health, ecosystems, coastlines, water resources, agriculture, forests and infrastructure based upon varying degrees of severity and forecast models (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).


Although the Climate Response Strategy covers many areas, I will focus the discussion primarily on the expected problems with energy management and water resource management due to declining snowpack levels and warmer temperatures.  Overall, warming temperatures will likely produce drier summers and warmer, wetter winters for the Pacific Northwest (Mote and Salathe 2010).  The spring snowpack is forecasted to decrease significantly over the next several decades (Mote and Salathe 2010).  Current projections estimate that average snowpack levels will decrease 37-44% by the 2040s and 53-65% by the 2080s (Elsner et al. 2010).  As a result, stream runoffs will be higher during times of lower water demand in the winter and lower stream runoffs during times of higher demand in the summer (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).


The snowpack and glaciers serve as a “natural reservoir” of freshwater, help maintain adequate stream runoff, and provide a supply water during the drier summer months (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).  Snowmelt and stream runoff in the Pacific Northwest supplies water for the irrigation of crops, supports the use of hydroelectric power, and maintains the environment required for the freshwater lifecycle of salmon (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).


Food and agriculture are critical to the Washington economy and American agricultural production.  Washington is the third largest exporter of food and agricultural products.  The agriculture industry is valued over $7 billion and accounts for 12% of the Washington economy (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).  Approximately 1.8 billion acres are under irrigation, and reduced snowpack levels are expected to impact yields in the Yakima, Columbia, and Walla Walla basins (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).  In order to account for the changing environment, Washington invests in research to drought resistant crops, instating programs to improve efficiencies in irrigation and water conveyance, and promotes legislation to increase flexibility for water right holders transfer (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).


Washington’s power generation is particularly vulnerable to the changes in snowpack level.  Currently, hydroelectric power supplies approximately 66% of Washington’s electricity needs (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).  However, the reduction in snowpack levels is anticipated to reduce the summer hydroelectric power output while electricity demand rises from higher air conditioning costs (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).  Natural gas plants are used to account for the the larger difference between the seasonal peaks and troughs until solar, wind, and biomass can be scaled up the required output (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).


Reduced stream flows and warmer stream temperatures risk destroying the freshwater salmon habitat, affecting a critical industry to the Pacific Northwest (Mantua et al 2010).  In order to minimize the loss of habitat and economic impact, the state must actively manage the water supply by balancing energy production, irrigation requirements, and maximize stream flow levels for cold water fish (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).  Additionally, Washington is exploring options to increase shade and foliage around key tributaries to mitigate the rise in water temperature (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).


In order to mitigate the negative impact from climate change, governments, non-profits, and businesses alike must broadly consider how the effects of climate change will be realized.  The simple exercise of observing just the implications of reduced snowpack demonstrates how complicated and wide reaching the problem of climate change actually is.  Washington state should continue to research potential problems and solutions to mitigate future problems.

(650 words)



Adelsman, H., and J. Ekrem. 2012. Preparing for a changing climate: Washington State’s Integrated Climate Response Strategy.


Elsner, M.M., L. Cuo, N. Voisin, J. Deems, A.F. Hamlet, J.A. Vano, K.E.B. Mickelson, S.Y. Lee, and D.P. Lettenmaier. 2010. Implications of 21st century climate change for the hydrology of Washington State. Climatic Change 102(1-2):225-260


Mantua, N.J., I. Tohver, and A.F. Hamlet. 2010. Climate change impacts on streamflow extremes and summertime stream temperature and their possible consequences for freshwater salmon habitat in Washington State. Climatic Change 102(1-2): 187-223


Mote, P.W., and E.P. Salathe. 2010. Future climate in the Pacific Northwest. Climactic Change 102(1-2): 29-50


Salathe, E.P., L.R. Leung, Y. Qian, and Y. Zhang. 2010 Regional climate model projections for the State of Washington. Climatic Change 102(1-2): 51-75


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Student comments on Reduced Snowpack in Washington State

  1. You’ve discussed a number of possible solutions to Washington’s water problem, and they’re all important ones. But in addition to focusing on the supply side, I also think there are steps that can be taken on the demand side as well by changing the water consumption of its citizens.

    California is in the middle of a drought, and while things have gotten better in the last year or so, reservoir levels are nowhere near where they need to be. The state government put in place programs to limit water use, and the public attitudes around the drought were such that there was social pressure not use over-use water for luxuries like a greener lawn.

    It worked: water usage was down in 2015 was down some 13.5 percent as of last year [1]. But I think that was only possible because the situation got so dire.

    Being in a drought is not a good situation. But when that does happen, given the trajectory of Washington’s climate, it needs to take advantage of the situation and change the way that its citizens use water and think about water usage.



  2. I think it is interesting that you bring up the sensitivity of Washington’s power supply to climate change factors. This issue is not one that is limited to the state’s borders; Washington state is currently a notable provider of IT data center services exactly because of its current availability of cheap electrical power. Over the last decade, organizations like Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, T-Mobile, and Yahoo! have moved their data centers to the state , driven by significant tax incentives and low unit. Even the state itself has built data centers – meaning that Washington State itself is now a data center service provider! It will be interesting to see how the state responds – if at all – to these changing conditions, if the price of electricity starts increasing.

    Sources: (1); (2)

  3. Pat, I enjoyed reading about this topic, and my first thought was very similar to Fey’s. When you discussed Washington’s reliance on hydroelectric power, I was curious if Washington’s current population growth over the last five years, particularly in urban areas, is contributing to additional strain in creating more electricity for this growing population? The State of Washington released their 2016 Population Trends back in September and it is interesting to analyze the way the population is migrating to areas around Seattle/Tacoma and Spokane specifically [1]. Also, after you discussed the economic impacts that climate change has on the salmon industry in Washington, I began to wonder want additional impacts climate change could have on the logging industry? I thought that could be an additional industry you could look at in the future.

    Source [1]:

  4. This is a really interesting topic that highlights a typical supply chain issue that many companies have: The State of Washington is facing increasing demand during periods where available supply is decreasing. What is different here versus a company that sells tangible products is that there is no room for “backlog”. If demand exceeds supply, then the state goes into a blackout. So in order to avoid this from happening, the state government would have to use alternative energy sources (natural gas, solar, wind, etc.). As you mentioned, this puts Washington in a difficult situation where they must choose between emitting more greenhouse gases into the environment in order to provide sufficient energy or blackouts. Thankfully, Washington is a part of ColumbiaGrid, which is a non-profit membership corporation that serves the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, California, Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah. [1] This transmission network allows members to engage in wholesale transaction of electricity.

    For Washington State, I think immediate next steps will extend beyond research. To address the energy issue, it should carefully forecast its electricity output, and plan to purchase the remaining required electricity through ColumbiaGrid members, or use the other sources of energy that you listed in the post. Both will require additional investment and expenses. The state will need to carefully plan and allocate tax dollars going forward. Budgeting taxes is a zero-sum game: every dollar spent on energy is one less dollar spent on healthcare or education. It will be interesting to see how Washington decides to prioritize sustainable energy and environmental protection among all of its other initiatives going forward.


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