Huge gouges from roads. Trails little more than dotted lines of tread on a slumping slope. Piles of old growth trees ripped from the forest, now horizontally huddled against broken bridge pilings, still other bridges twisted and tossed about like toys (and one that was swept away and never found). Scenes from a Mad Max movie? Nope – just another day at the office from our public lands managers.
Western Washington’s devastating floods of 2003, 2006 and 2007, termed “100 year floods,” were a wake-up call to public land managers and the public. Eight years after the 2003 floods, the Forest Service is still dealing with that flood damage, and National Parks are still dealing with damage caused by the 2006 and 2007 floods. Careers have been launched – and bailed – as a result of the nebulous flood repair processes. Due to climate change, we can expect flood damage to become more frequent.
On November 30 and December 1, 2011, the North Cascadia Adaption Partnership (NCAP) - a collaboration of the US Forest Service (USFS) and National Park Service (NPS) - hosted a Climate Change and Human Access workshop to explore changing hydrology and its impact to access on public lands - including roads, trails, campgrounds and infrastructure.
Presentations by the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, Western Federal Lands Highways Division, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie and Olympic National Forests, Mt. Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades National Parks showed climate change trends, road repair specifications, costs, and predictions.
NPS and USFS gave presentations about their flood issues - these presentations were dubbed “The Battle of the Floods” – with each agency outdoing the other with their devastation photos.
Climate scientists and land managers anticipate more frequent and larger storms due to changing precipitation patterns and the rising snow levels. We can expect more volumes of water roaring down our watersheds in winter, creating more swift-moving, or “flashier” floods capable of undermining roadbeds and scouring away riverbanks so that bridges no longer lead anywhere, their far ends jutting out into thin air and looking like ancient Roman ruins, their purpose long-gone.
The lack of rain in extended summers will dry out the forest vegetation and soils, meaning more fires and less vegetation to absorb the frequent and heavier fall and winter rains, resulting in - you guessed it – flashier floods.
Thousands of miles of secondary, un-used logging and spur-roads remain in Washington’s National Forests. There is no funding to upgrade every road to standards that will withstand 100 year floods. Factors to consider are geologic hazard, how much sediment enters fish habitat and how often, how many streams a road crosses per mile, and riparian zone buffers. In the future, those roads that are kept open will need upgrading to meet the newer standards needed withstand the impacts of climate change.
There are a lot of things we can do now to prepare ourselves for change, before the impacts of climate change become bigger. Check out some of the resources below; consider participating during public comment periods for road repairs, and advocate for appropriate federal funding for public land agencies.
More information about road issues & climate change :
US Fish & Wildlife, on Climate Change in the Pacific Northwest
Olympic National Forest Climate Change publication, August, 2011 (144 pages). The USFS Pacific Northwest Research station just completed the 2nd of a 2-part study on climate change and how it might affect roads, vegetation, wildlife and hydrology in Olympic National Forest and Olympic National Park. These studies will be a tremendously useful resource to all land managers when determining a course of action regarding the management of their lands for climate change.
The Way In - a study by National Parks Conservation Association after the 2006 floods at MRNP
Way-cool technical dork stuff:
Engineered log jams (ELJ’s). Placing woody debris in strategic locations can slow down the pace of water, which helps in preventing disastrous undermining of roadbeds (as a bonus, ELJ’s create aquatic habitat and resting places for fish).
Fish passage culverts . Used for fish-bearing streams, these culverts are now termed Aquatic Organism Passage culverts, or AOP’s (I am not making this up!). Larger AOP’s are being used more routinely. It’s not uncommon nowadays to see AOPs that are designed to accommodate 100 year floods, plus 20%, for added debris to move through them (to impress friends and family: this is written as a Q100 + 20% AOP - how you say it is up to you). This is quite a change from the old standard of a 25-year flood standard (Q25, of course).