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State should study impact of global warming on the Willamette

(Soapboxes are guest opinions from our readers, and anyone is welcome to write one. Kathy Newcomb, of Tualatin, is the vice-president and research analyst for Citizens for Safe Water.)

We members of Citizens for Safe Water are currently asking the state for a study of the anticipated impact of global warming (or cyclical climate change) on the Willamette River. Specifically, we are asking Governor Kulongoski and our senators and representatives and various organizations to support such a study. We have already received many positive responses and a variety of support.

Why does Oregon need such a study? Specifically because, in the coming decades, global warming appears likely to result in substantially less water in the Willamette at certain crucial times of the year. In that case, the river will be even more polluted than it is today, unless we begin preparing now for these changes.

Here is one illustration of the problem, using municipal water drawn from the Willamette as an example:

First we must consider that in the Willamette Valley our greatest need for municipal water occurs in July, August and early September, the so-called 'peak months.' Peak use, primarily for watering lawns, doubles, triples and even quadruples our normal water usage.

Unfortunately, the lowest flows of the Willamette are also in July, August and early September.

But many people are unaware that the natural low flows of the Willamette are greatly augmented each year by clean water discharged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' 13 dams.

As of 1950 the natural low flow of the river was measured at 2,500 cubic feet per second at Salem. Currently, by means of the dams, that low flow is increased to 6,500 cubic feet per second.

But here is the weak point: Global warming (or cyclical climate changes) may deal a double whammy to that extra water provided by the dams.

Right now, that extra water is crucial to hundreds of DEQ permits for pollutant discharges. Remember the old mantra, 'Dilution is the solution to pollution.' The discharge of millions of pounds of 'toxics,' i.e., metals and chemicals, is diluted by water from the dams in order to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act. At present we have 'toxic mixing zones.' In the future, with possible serious water shortages in the dry season, even regulated toxic mixing zones could not do the job.

The double whammy from climate change would occur in two ways - one in the spring and one in the summer.

In the spring, increasing drought cycles could prevent the Corps from refilling its dams. (Please remember that the primary purpose of the dams is to provide flood control, so the dams are kept empty for this purpose during the winter.)

Spring 2001 is a recent example. Many of us recall the news photos of the nearly bone-dry reservoir, Detroit Dam, that year. The late spring rains barely filled the Corps' dams then.

In the summer the dams must be replenished by snow melt. But the historic snowpack is melting away. A new study shows that it is down 35 percent.

There are two other problems:

(1) What about fish, fish habitat and fish gender? The fish already suffer greatly from the polluted Willamette. Actually, fish survival is a far greater problem than municipal water. But that is another story.

(2) What about the permitted polluters - the industries and sewage treatment plants? Will they be able to remove the worst pollutants from their discharges?

We are requesting the state to encourage two sources of funding to help polluters answer these questions - the first source is matching funding from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, and the second is pollution tax credits. We do not want to lose family-wage jobs.

Please ask your senator and representative to support this much-needed study. And ask them to urge Governor Kulongoski to support this step toward cleaning up the Willamette.