Rethinking the Walla Walla watershed

Katherine Ellis, News Reporter

The Walla Walla Basin is a watershed that encompasses the Washington and Oregon border. The effects of climate change will further reduce streamflow in the watershed in upcoming years.

The quantity of snowpack in the Blue Mountains has been decreasing and melting earlier in the year. Since there is little precipitation in the area in the summer, snowmelt plays a crucial role in maintaining the Basin’s water supply. Increasing variability in rainfall during the summer months will further complicate the issue, as well as a resulting increase in wildfires. These fluctuations can greatly damage habitats and decrease streamflow.

Washington State Department of Ecology Communications Specialist Michele Cole breaks down the environmental concerns for the Walla Walla Basin in a blog post

The Walla Walla Basin is predicted to experience one of the largest declines in snowpack in the Pacific Northwest,” Cole writes. “The Walla Walla River is expected to decrease by up to 66 percent by the 2040s and as much as 89 percent by the 2080s. This would hold dire consequences to the people, farms and fish in the basin.

Illustration by Payton Davies.

Beginning in 2019, the Walla Walla Management Partnership and the Department of Ecology have worked to develop a 30-year water management plan for the Walla Walla Basin. They have collaborated with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and stakeholders on both sides of the border.

This plan, Walla Walla Water 2050 (WWW2050), will focus on managing the current water supply to increase streamflows, protect critical species’ habitats and ensure enough water for farms, fish and people. House Bill 1322 and Senate Bill 5384 are calling for the implementation of the plan.

WWW2050 itself acknowledges the importance of beginning to take action immediately.

“The watershed serves as a source of drinking and municipal water to several cities with burgeoning urban centers and growing populations,” the plan reads.

As local populations continue to increase, so will demand on the water supply. The watershed’s current infrastructure is also having a detrimental impact on currently endangered species of fish residing in the Basin, explains WWW2050. 

Executive Director of the Snake River Salmon Recovery Board John Foltz shared his concerns for the further decline of currently endangered fish, such as the steelhead and bull trout. 

“I’d suggest that we have already felt the impacts of their decline and loss within the ecology of the basin, as well as in the community, which is in part why implementing the 2050 plan is important,” Flotz said. “Salmonids are important ecologically in bringing ocean-derived nutrients into the watershed, as a food source, economic driver and as an indicator of watershed health. Furthermore, salmon are culturally important to the people of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation as a food and integral to their ceremonies and traditions.”

Although WWW2050 is a 30-year water management plan, many are arguing that its present implementation is crucial. Communications Manager for the Department of Ecology’s Eastern Regional Office Stephanie May commented on the plan’s timeline. 

It is urgent – but we know that results will not happen overnight, ” May said. “We are optimistic about where the initiative is headed. We’ve built in the ability to adapt the plan along with climate resilience strategies. As the strategy evolves, the goal remains to improve stream flows and water supplies in the Walla Walla watershed.”