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Willamette Water 2100

Willamette Water 2100
Dive deep into the future of our largest river

When you ask the average Oregonian to describe the Willamette Valley, the first thing you’ll likely hear is, “It’s wet.” That seems obvious enough. If the Willamette Basin were a literal basin—like a flat-bottomed washtub—it would catch enough water within a year to fill it more than 5 feet deep.

Yet that’s not the whole story, says Sam Chan, an OSU Sea Grant watershed specialist. “It’s really more accurate to say that there’s a perceived abundance of water in the Willamette Basin.”

Chan is one of 35 OSU members of a scientific team that just finished a massive 6-year modeling study called Willamette Water 2100. Their verdict: With a growing population and a warming climate, parts of Willamette country will likely face water scarcity over the next 90 years.

The Willamette River and its tributaries drain a watershed that amounts to 12 percent of Oregon’s land area, holds 60 percent of the state’s population and some of its choicest farmlands, and hosts its three largest cities: Portland, Salem, and Eugene.

Willamette River LiDAR

Using pulsed lasers, this LiDAR image shows a segment of the Willamette River between Albany and Salem. (Image by Daniel Coe, DOGAMI.)

“We hope our findings will help policy-makers and other decision-makers identify the most effective measures to help the people in the Basin mitigate some of these scarcities, or adapt to them,” says OSU hydroclimatologist Anne Nolin, who leads the WW2100 team.

WW2100 makes predictions of likely outcomes under 20 different scenarios, says team member William Jaeger, an OSU economist and coauthor of a new OSU Extension publication, “Water, Economics, and Climate Change in the Willamette Basin, Oregon” which presents the model’s findings in detail.

“We started with the ‘business as usual’ scenario,” he says. “That gives us a baseline prediction of where and when water scarcity is likely to increase. And then we asked the ‘what-if’ questions.”

Such as: What if more farmers wanted to use irrigation? What if incentives were used to encourage water conservation in urban areas? What if the basin’s 13 federal reservoirs were managed differently? What if urban growth boundaries were changed? Every tweak sends ripples through the fabric of the model, altering its predictions in small or big ways.

The WW2100 model is equipped to answer such questions because it’s “a coupled human-natural system model, based on empirical data,” says Jaeger. That means the model draws on a sturdy foundation of research to describe in detail the ways in which people change the natural world, and are changed by it, as they go about their lives: choosing where to build, how to manage cities and farms, how to use and protect forests and streams, and a host of other individual and collective decisions.

“That combination of human and natural dynamics is really rare in a model,” Jaeger says.

Morrison Bridge, Portland, OR

Portland, Oregon, is the terminus of the Willamette River, where it joins the Columbia on its way to the Pacific. (Photo by Chris Ho.)

The centerpiece of WW2100 is a software platform called Envision, developed by OSU ecological engineer and WW2100 team member John Bolte. Envision is the executive brain that enables all the different models to talk to one another, share data, and project water scarcity at different moments in time, across the whole basin and in the different watersheds that compose it.

“We learned things from this coupled modeling that we couldn’t have learned from projections from either natural dynamics or human systems alone,” says Nolin. For example, it would seem obvious that a warming climate would have an impact on water. Yet the research team found that future patterns of water scarcity—when and where it will happen and how big an impact it will have—depend much more on the “people” side: rising incomes, population growth, urban expansion, farming practices, conservation measures. And they depend on how the available tools—water laws, land use practices, reservoirs, utilities management, environmental regulations—are used to allocate what water there is.

“We’re fortunate here in the Willamette Basin,” Nolin says, “because, unlike many places in the West, water is not yet a crisis.” Nolin and her team hope WW2100 will help keep it that way by clarifying the choices along with the inevitable tradeoffs.

What we might expect: key findings of Willamette Water 2100

  • Global warming will significantly reduce winter snowpack over the next decades, especially at lower elevations.
  • Warmer, drier conditions in the mountains will stress forests, in turn increasing wildfires as much as ninefold, and eventually triggering shifts in forest ecosystems toward sparser, drier forests.
  • Earlier springs will shift irrigation demand to start earlier in the season and may lessen demand in the late summer.
  • Rising populations and incomes in metropolitan areas will increase urban demand for water. If neighborhoods get denser, water demand may grow more slowly.
  • Urban growth will spill out onto neighboring farmland in some places, reducing demand for irrigation and increasing demand in cities. Even so, irrigation will continue to consume much more water than urban use.
  • The 13 federal reservoirs on the Willamette and its tributaries represent the biggest mechanism for mitigating water scarcity over the next 90 years. But watersheds of undammed tributaries will be more vulnerable in drought years.
  • Federal laws protecting salmon and other fish require leaving a lot of water in the streams—much more than is taken out for irrigation or urban use. Such environmental requirements are likely to increase in the future.
  • Warmer stream temperatures will degrade habitat for cold-water species like salmon and trout, decreasing their populations and boosting populations of warm-water species like carp.
  • For some uses, water may be abundant but unavailable, either because a given person doesn’t have the right to use it, or because it costs too much to transport the water where it’s needed.

What is a model?

Willamette Water 2100 flowchart model

As a model, Willamette Water 2100 integrates a broad range of water sources, demands, and contingencies. (Illustration by Alan Dennis, based on WW2100 conceptual diagram.)

Close your eyes and think of your third-grade classroom. Picture a poster on the wall showing the solar system: the planets Mercury through Pluto (back in the day) printed in streaks of yellow, red, and blue, big beads strung on a necklace of concentric rings circling a spiky yellow sun. If you were lucky, your teacher might have hung a three-dimensional version from the ceiling, a tippy mobile that rocked gently at every slam of the door.

You knew that these representations were not the real thing, but a simplified representation, showing the relationships among Earth, its sibling planets, and their governing star. That poster (or the mobile, if you were lucky) was a model.

A model can’t contain every aspect of reality. (If it could, it would BE reality.) Rather, it contains the aspects of a given reality that are of interest to whoever is doing the modeling. Your teacher no doubt chose the solar system models as a good way to introduce eight-year-olds to their wider cosmic neighborhood. A more complicated model of the solar system might show, for example, the actual distances between one planet’s orbit and the next—vaster than it’s possible to capture in a classroomsized poster or mobile. It might also represent the motion of the planets, which make it possible to predict an eclipse.

Models are an essential tool in science. To make them, scientists start with quantities of information discovered through empirical study. They comb through these data looking for patterns and significant relationships. Then they distill this knowledge into mathematical equations.

An equation is a model itself, of a pattern that holds true across a range of situations. E = mc², for example, describes the relationship between mass and energy whether you’re on Earth, on the moon, or somewhere in a far-flung galaxy.

Most other models are not so universal as Einstein’s famous one, but they are still useful. Models can represent processes both natural (the pull of gravity, the speed of light, the orbit of Saturn, the effects of air temperature on melting snow) and human- driven (migration into cities, urban water use, irrigation patterns among farmers of different crops).

When combined into a computer platform like Willamette Envision, the models enable scientists to test how different processes interact with and influence one another. They enable scientists, and also citizens and policymakers, to see how Plan A will produce a given set of effects by 2090, whereas Plan B will produce different effects.

The value of models like WW2100, say its scientists, is to make it possible for citizens and their policymakers to better understand future options and—it is hoped—choose pathways that lead to a future their grandchildren can live with.

Published in: Ecosystems, Water, Economics