Adapting to climate change risks at a watershed scale

Photo: TRPC
The Deschutes River surges over its banks at Tumwater Falls Park following a record-breaking rainstorm in December 2015. Climate models project more frequent and intense heavy rainfall events amid the Puget Sound region in coming decades.

Climate change is projected to increase the frequency and intensity of storms, wildfires, floods and other natural hazards tomorrow. Fortunately, have an opportunity today to assess our vulnerability and boost our resiliency.

TRPC is developing a watershed-based plan with strategies that the Thurston County region’s public- and private-sector stakeholders could use to prepare for and cope with climate change impacts. The state Department of Commerce is administering National Estuary Program grant funding for the project, which will wrap up in early 2018 with TRCP policymaker consideration of a draft Thurston Climate Adaptation Plan. 

The planning area encompasses three watersheds — also known as Watershed Resource Inventory Areas (WRIAs) — which overlay northern and eastern Thurston County and drain into Puget Sound: Nisqually (WRIA 11), Deschutes (WRIA 13), and Kennedy/Goldsborough (WRIA 14). 

In coming decades, the project area and broader South Puget Sound region will likely experience warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers, according to a recent TRPC climate change vulnerability assessment, which analyzed peer-reviewed research that incorporated global climate models and emissions scenarios. In addition to exacerbating natural hazards, climate change threatens our water quality and quantity, critical roads and bridges, human health and welfare, and other important assets within our built and natural environments.

“Warmer, drier summers could reduce aquifer recharge and spur more groundwater pumping when surface water is scarce,” the vulnerability assessment noted. “Such direct and indirect climate change impacts, coupled with sea-level rise, could make Thurston County’s coastal freshwater aquifers more vulnerable to water quality and quantity risks including saltwater intrusion and inundation, pathogen and pollution contamination, and overconsumption.”

TRPC is uniquely qualified to lead this regional adaptation planning effort, as the agency’s mission is to assemble stakeholders, analyze data, build consent for regional plans, and support local action. Toward that end, TRPC’s project team is working with a more than 20-member community stakeholder advisory committee to evaluate the probability and consequences of climate change risks and develop and prioritize adaptation strategies. 

Like the Sustainable Thurston plan, the Thurston Climate Adaptation Plan will include a menu of strategies for human and natural systems, as well as identify leads and partners.

“The project area’s three watersheds are diverse in geography, economy and culture, so it’s important to provide a range of adaptation strategies from which our North County and South County communities may choose,” said TRPC interim Executive Director Veena Tabbutt. “Climate resiliency may take different forms for different folks.”

One of the first action steps Sustainable Thurston called for was to develop a comprehensive climate plan with mitigation and adaption strategies for the public and private sectors. So in addition to developing the Thurston Climate Adaptation Plan, TRPC is working on several fronts to mitigate (reduce) the region’s carbon footprint. For example, TRPC is working with the non-profit Thurston Thrives Climate & Clean Energy Work Team to evaluate potential renewable energy and energy efficiency initiatives that would help the region hit Sustainable Thurston’s regional greenhouse gas emission-reduction targets: 

  • Achieve 25 percent reduction of 1990 levels by 2020; 
  • Achieve 45 percent reduction of 1990 levels by 2035; 
  • Achieve 80 percent reduction of 1990 levels by 2050.  
In 2015, TRPC helped integrate Sustainable Thurston’s foundational principles and policies into the Countywide Planning Policies — the framework for coordinating local comprehensive plan updates. This is important in a regional context because Sustainable Thurston includes many goals and actions that will help the region reduce its emissions — ranging from reigning in urban sprawl, to reducing vehicle miles traveled, to slashing waste production and water consumption. 

Going forward, TRPC will continue to pursue funding and opportunities to help the region measure and manage its emissions. This comprehensive strategy is built on the premise that a resilient region must take many steps to mitigate and adapt to climate change. 
For more information about TRPC’s climate change planning efforts, please visit: