Heatwaves. Drought. Wildfires. Declining snowpack. Unseasonable weather.
The signposts of climate change have arrived across the Columbia River Basin.
In the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, community governments have moved in a flurry to cut local greenhouse gas emissions and prepare residents for an increasingly volatile climate.
But so far, emission-cutting efforts remain in infant stages in the region, which straddles the border of Oregon and Washington. And measuring the impact of new resolutions is difficult.
The Columbia River Gorge is home to about 75,000 residents in mostly small communities.
The region’s most fleshed-out climate plan debuted in Oregon’s Hood River County in 2018. That’s when local governments and partners set the goal of replacing 30 percent of fossil fuel use in the county with renewable energy by 2030.
Last year saw more political momentum for climate action in the Gorge, beginning when White Salmon and Mosier, Ore., resolved to eliminate emissions from their municipal operations by midcentury.
To date, neither town has estimated the size of their climate footprints, so it’s unclear whether initiatives are making progress. Mayors of both communities say they probably are.
In April 2021, Bingen declared a local climate crisis.
And in December, The Dalles, Ore., the largest city in the Gorge with about 15,000 residents, moved to create a climate change task force to study the city’s options.
Climate advocates, including Michael Lang, conservation director at Friends of the Columbia Gorge, say officials are laying the groundwork to green their communities, despite limited budgets and scant space for renewable energy projects.
“I’ve never seen this much action across the board,” says Lang.
Progress is slow
The most local climate action is in Hood River County, where a partnership of local governments, utilities and ports set goals of decreasing the use of fossil fuel emissions four years ago as part of the Hood River County Energy Council.
So far, the county hasn’t cut emissions.
In 2015, the first year with complete data, Hood River County produced about 292,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, the standard metric in greenhouse gas inventories. In 2019, the last complete year available, that dipped to just 291,420 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.
The inventory includes emissions by utility companies providing electricity and natural gas, or methane, to homes, as well as gasoline and diesel use in transportation and industry.
Not included are emissions from vehicles on Interstate 84, a regional hub for commerce and recreation. Including that would balloon the county’s greenhouse gas footprint by as much as 20 percent, said Eric Strid, one of the volunteer analysts.
Emissions have stayed level overall in part because some gains are being blunted by other, rising sources of pollution.
Pacific Power, which supplies much of the county with electricity, cut its emissions by 12 percent in 2016. This was offset in part by rising emissions from methane, as new construction created more customers for utility NW Natural, according to the report.
Energy Council analysts expect progress in the next eight years, driven by factors such as state-mandated transitions to clean energy and electric vehicle use, but little in the decades after.
Their calculations place Hood River County 4 percent short of the county’s 2030 goal, to cut fossil fuel use by 30 percent, unless new policies and practices emerge to speed up the transition. Otherwise, emissions will far outstrip the county’s midcentury targets, according to their report.
Results will also be influenced by macroeconomic trends and statewide policies guiding adoption of electric vehicles and renewable energy in the decades to come.
Building codes, which dictate emissions reductions from heating, cooling and powering homes and businesses, are currently set by the state government in Oregon.
So far, municipal governments in the Gorge are incorporating climate action into strategic planning on issues like housing affordability, transportation and wastewater treatment, while striving to reduce emissions in some cases.
In Mosier, which has a population of 470, residents are fired up about climate change and want to make a difference, Mayor Arlene Burns said.
Burns says she’s been reaching out to experts about conducting a greenhouse gas inventory. It’s a technical and potentially expensive task, and the city is relying on grants for about half of its $6.8 million budget this year.
“Our climate team is me, basically,” says Burns.
Mosier plans to break ground on a net-zero fire hall and community center. Pacific Power recently paid for a set of electric vehicle charging stations.
In White Salmon, officials are expanding public transit to link with providers like Columbia Area Transit and Mt. Adams Transportation Systems.
The city’s landscaping crews also replaced their gasoline-powered leaf blowers with battery-powered blowers. Mayor Marla Keethler says that transition will significantly cut emissions, citing an Edmunds study that found the engines in commercial gas-powered leaf blowers emit more than some pickup trucks.
Keethler says officials are also requiring that resource conservation is a consideration when managing city properties and encouraging building density to cut down on commuting and local travel times.
The city of Hood River added solar panels to help power its wastewater treatment plant, which is the largest energy consumer in municipal operations, says Mayor Kate McBride. The city is planning to decarbonize its municipal operations by 2035.
Debi Ferrer, a climate advocate with Protect Oregon’s Progress, helped establish The Dalles’ climate task force, which is expected to start meeting this spring. She says the city’s climate programs to date include the purchase of one hybrid-electric vehicle for the municipal fleet.
“That maybe should have happened a long time ago,” she says.
The city hasn’t completed an emissions inventory, although Mayor Richard Mays told Columbia Insight he’s interested in commissioning one.
As he picks members for the task force, Mays says he’s aware of what critics might be thinking: “What’s taking so long?”