State urges agencies to minimize vulnerability to weather

State report says climate change could cost billions every year

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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State develops integrated strategy for dealing with climate change.

A new state report predicts that climate change could cost Washington almost $10 billion per year by 2020 if unchecked, and urges local leaders to be ready for a shifting landscape. For Southwest Washington, that’s a strategy many policymakers adopted -- and continue to hone -- well before the latest call to action.

The multiagency report, spurred in part by an executive order from Gov. Chris Gregoire, touched on several potential scenarios that are close to home for Clark County. Climate change could mean more extreme weather events like floods and storms. Risks to water quality. Damage to roads and other infrastructure. More precipitation, but less in the form of snow. More-volatile river flows. The report called the Columbia River system a “highly vulnerable” basin to the effects of climate change.

“The important part is for us as state agencies to start incorporating climate impact and climate adaptation into our activities,” said Hedia Adelsman, an executive policy adviser with the ecology department and a lead author of the report.

Adelsman noted the report is not intended as a mandate for local planners and policymakers. It’s meant to get them thinking, she said, so they ask a key question when mapping out future plans and projects.

“Is this going to be sensitive to climate change?” Adelsman said. “And if it is, is there something we can do about it?”

Those are questions already on the minds of regional transportation officials, said Rick Keniston, a project development engineer with the Washington State Department of Transportation in Vancouver. Highway maintenance crews often play a large role in answering them, he said.

“They’re familiar with every inch of every highway,” Keniston said.

WSDOT doesn’t operate under a specific climate policy, but the potential may force the agency to rethink some assumptions, Keniston said. In planning to replace coastal bridges, for example, planners must consider floods that have inundated some roads in recent decades, he said. State Highway 503 above Woodland is susceptible to slides and erosion caused by excess rain. So is state Highway 14 east of Washougal into the Columbia River Gorge. A recent WSDOT analysis gave that stretch of Highway 14 a “high vulnerability” rating for climate impacts.

Still, planning around still-evolving -- sometimes disputed -- climate science carries plenty of uncertainty. The reality is, WSDOT or any other agency can’t predict exact conditions. They mostly hope to be ready, Keniston said.

“We just don’t want to get caught off-guard,” he said. “But we don’t want to over-design, either.”

WSDOT environmental policy manager Carol Lee Roalkvam credited local communities with leading the charge on climate response as state agencies follow suit. Both Clark County and the city of Vancouver boast extensive sustainability efforts.

For the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, encouragement came from above. Forest spokesman Chris Strebig said managers are working to implement a 10-point climate performance “scorecard” developed by the U.S. Forest Service. Much of the strategy involves assessing vulnerabilities. For Gifford Pinchot, that means roads and bridges affected by floods and slides, forest pests and disease, and the threat of wildfires on the forest’s drier east side.

Gifford Pinchot hasn’t reached the point of altering its management practices specifically around climate change, said natural resource officer Dave Olson. But it’s working toward that end, he said.

Just about any major action against climate change comes with a financial cost to a public agency, said Adelsman. She also recommended smaller steps, like energy conservation when possible. Those are “no regret” actions, she said -- that is, “things that should be done even if the impacts of climate change don’t materialize to the level predicted.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.