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Retreating Glacier Could Impact Bellingham’s Water Supply

December 2005

Cover Story

Retreating Glacier Could Impact Bellingham’s Water Supply

by Sarah Kuck

Sarah Kuck studies environmental journalism at WWU and is our Whatcom Watch intern. She is also the chief editor of The Planet.

The glaciers of the North Cascades are slowly retreating. The North Cascades range is home to 725 glaciers, which collectively pump 200 billion gallons of cool water into the ecosystems below.

For 22 years, Mauri S. Pelto, a professor of environmental science at Nichols College in Massachusetts, has traveled to the Northwest to study the behavior of the recoiling ice. Since 1983, Pelto’s North Cascades Glacier Climate Project has kept a close eye on 47 Cascade glaciers. Pelto founded the project to find out how the glaciers of the North Cascades are responding to regional climate change.

In order to study this, he and the project’s crew visit specific glaciers as close to the same date every year to take measurements. The researchers look at yearly changes in accumulation and melt of the snowpack (mass balance), how much water melts and runs off (glacial flow) and how far the edge has retreated (terminus behavior).

The Deming Glacier was a recent research subject of Pelto’s. The Deming Glacier’s a key source for the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River. The river flows directly out from the bottom of the Deming Glacier to the Middle Fork of the Nooksack, then through the diversion dam to Mirror Lake, out Anderson Creek and into Lake Whatcom.

Since 1964, the city of Bellingham has used the Bellingham diversion dam to divert water from the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River into Lake Whatcom. The diversion pours glacial runoff into Lake Whatcom, providing for a portion of Bellingham’s water supply in the summer. Three different inputs influence the amount of water going into lake. Direct precipitation just on the lake accounts for 20 percent of the water supply, runoff from the surface and ground water accounts for 70 percent and the diversion accounts for approximately 10 percent.

In the past Georgia-Pacific pulled large amounts of water from the lake for their production of paper. After closing much of their facility in 2001, the lake gained in storage; however, the city’s demand is growing as the population grows and the diversion is still used to supplement that need in the summer.

In 2003, the city of Bellingham’s water department funded Pelto’s organization to study the contribution of the Deming Glacier to streamflow in the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River. The city wanted to find out what affect the glacier’s retreat will have on the diversion.

The Deming Glacier contributes 15 to 30 percent of the river’s streamflow from July to September, according to the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project.

According to Pelto’s study, the Deming Glacier has made a yearly retreat of approximately 15 to 20 meters, or approximately 49 to 66 feet; however, it will not disappear with the current climate, according to the NCGCP.

The retreat of the glacier is a rough estimate, said Joe Wood, a Western Washington University geography graduate student who accompanied Pelto that summer. It wouldn’t be right for anyone to make a guess as to how much the glacier will retreat or how long it will take because too much uncertainty exists concerning glacial movement and climate patterns, Wood said.

“Glaciers are like big reservoirs of water,” said Wood. “They supply water in the late summer when we really need it.”

The glacier’s ability to quench parched streams in the dry summer months will decrease as the glacier area decreases. Therefore, the glacier’s retreat is likely to cause significant declines in the dry months of summer streamflow in the Middle Fork Nooksack River watershed, according to the NCGCP.

Pelto will return next spring and summer to continue recording the changing characteristics of the North Cascade glaciers. Because this summer was so warm, Pelto said he expects the retreat has been high this summer, and that the glaciers are desperate for good snow cover to slow this rapid terminus retreat.

“It is pretty surprising, just to be standing in front of a glacier and see evidence of how fast it has retreated,” said Wood, “When you are close to a glacier, you realize how much it’s controlling the entire landscape around you.”

Contributing Factors

In terms of its contribution to streamflow, snowfall is a more significant factor than glacier retreat, Wood said. To calculate the amount of water coming off the glacier, roughly, it’s necessary to know how much snow accumulated in the winter, and then how much snow and ice melt in the summer.

Similar amounts of precipitation may fall in two different years, but much more may fall as snow in one year than another, depending on freezing levels, Wood said. If the glacier does not receive enough snowpack, then it can melt completely and a greater loss of glacier ice will occur during the warmer months.

Being able to keep a long running record of snowfall and snowmelt, linking it to what is going on with other glaciers could help us understand how our climate is changing on a regional scale, Wood said.

“It has been proven that humans are responsible for a huge rise in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere,” Wood said. “How that is affecting glacial retreat is a whole other question.”

Many people and politicians believe technology will eventually provide the solution to the problem, Wood said. Scientific studies are an important part of trying to understand how climate change would affect the water supply, but what is more important is that people use fewer resources, Wood said.

“What it comes down to on a personal and individual level is being aware of the amount of water—and any resource—we use,” Wood said.

The retreat of the glacier is linked to global warming and global warming is linked to human activities. It is not absolutely certain how much of it is, but at least part of it is in connection with greenhouse gases, said Doug Clark, a glacial geologist and assistant professor at Western.

“First of all, I teach climate change and the thing I lead off with is that global warming is happening. It’s absolutely undisputable,” said Clark. “A bit of uncertainty exists on whether or not that is related to human activities.”

The debate is not usually between scientists, Clark said. It tends to be more of a political debate. It tends to be people who are not researchers or scientists. The uncertainty comes about when discussing to what degree humans are causing this change. Clark said humans affect climate by cutting down and burning forests as well as adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

“We need to discern the natural background changes from how much of an affect humans are having on the climate in order to see how much it will change down the road,” Clark said.

Global warming doesn’t necessarily mean less rainfall, Clark said. In the future the impact will not be from less water, but from less snow.

“We’re pretty dependent on snowpack,” Clark said. “It will be less available in the late summer when we need it. That’s where the glaciers help. Most of the year the glaciers have minimal impact, but their most important effect is in the late summer.”

Part of the Solution

The Deming Glacier determines the amount of water in the Middle Fork of the Nooksack and has an influence on the city’s overall drinking water system, but the water supply does not depend on the glacier right now, said Clare Fogelsong, environmental resources manager of Bellingham Public Works Department.

“It’s important for the public to understand that indeed the Cascade glaciers are retreating,” Fogelsong said. “ And this isn’t just a theoretical issue.”

Fogelsong said the city might depend on the Deming Glacier in the future, but for now, enough water is in the system. The glacier is a contributing factor, but is not the main water supply.

“The city does draw water from the Middle Fork, and the glacier does contribute to the Middle Fork. But if that contribution wasn’t available, a crisis wouldn’t occur because of that fact,” Fogelsong said.

The reality of the finite water supply has lead Bellingham to switch to water metering.

The city of Bellingham has in essence switched to mandatory metering, said Tom Rosenberg, assistant director of Bellingham Public Works Department. From 2005 onward, the city requires any newly constructed single family home to have a meter box. The city allocates approximately 44 percent of the water produced to non-metered connections, so the single family residences that are non-metered represent 44 percent of the total water produced each year, Rosenberg said.

According to the public works department, voluntary water conservation programs and public education programs have been so successful that mandatory strategies to regulate water use have not been necessary.

A full switch for all customers to water meters would cost the city $7.5 million and at the moment the city sees no need to make that switch, Rosenberg said.

“Meters result in less consumption as logic,” Rosenberg said. “But meters do not make sense in a community that is already consumption conscious. I don’t have the data to support mandatory metering because the data I have currently shows we are actually decreasing our consumption.”

Even with the population growth, the city’s consumption has almost stayed flat. Water consumption actually decreased 8 percent this summer, compared to last.

“The only thing to contribute that to is a lot of awareness in the community,” Rosenberg said. “This community is aware of the fact that there is a finite supply of water.”

With the population of Bellingham continually growing and the future of the North Cascades glaciers unknown, what measures the city takes to conserve water depends on those who consume it. §

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