Imagine you are a fisheries manager. Lake Warner in eastern Oregon is your charge — a broad, deep lake in a mountainous terrain. Your lake swells in spring with the melting snowpack and then gradually declines until the fall rains begin. Although only fed by small streams, the Lake Warner empties to the northwest, flowing to the Deschutes River and from there to the Columbia and into the Pacific Ocean. Like most sizable bodies of water in this region, Lake Warner has a sizable salmon population that migrates between the ocean and the lake. You came to the lake as a child with your parents, and now you have a family. You love the lake as an ecosystem, and as a place of beauty. You fish there. Your family is literally nourished by the lake. Your children’s first Christmas is there. They learn to fish and hunt along the shores.
Now imagine that over the course of about 20 or 30 years the regular winter snow becomes rain, there is no snow left in August to feed the small streams under the blue, cloudless skies, and then the rains themselves diminish and then disappear. The lake sits in a broad mountainous valley. The lake’s depth was great enough that you had never really appreciated how high those mountains were, or that the lake in effect spilled out between a break in the mountains like pouring over the edge of a bathtub. But not the lake is so low, it doesn’t spill out anymore. Salmon that want to return to Lake Warner can’t — and salmon that want to migrate to the ocean are trapped. As the water level falls, the lake becomes many lakes, fragmented. The forested hills of ancient, massive trees have a major forest fire during one particularly dry year. That’s normal for this region — you and they have always lived with fire. But because the rains have stopped, no seedlings sprout after this fire. Hillsides that are not anchored slide and slip into what now seem more like wide puddles than lakes. Like a cruel joke, a white line high on the valley sides marks the place where the lake lay when you were a child. But the place you knew as a child no longer exists, and that ghostly line haunts the landscape and your memory.
Perhaps your worst feelings of all come from watching the salmon — after your family, your most important charge to keep. Cut off from the Pacific, and then trapped in fragmenting, dirty lakes beneath the dry hills. At first you managed the wild populations, controlling fisheries, then starting a hatchery to supplement the declining populations. You encouraging communities along the shore to reduce their water consumption, to recycle their water, as well as to make sure they only released water from their treatment plants that was extremely clean so as not to endanger the sensitive water quality. As farmers and ski slope managers begged for more water, you fought to restrict their usage, placing the salmon into direct economic conflict with important industries. You cut off all fishing, though this hurt the tourist industry. As the forests began to burn up, you helped institute replanting efforts and worked to instill strong soil conservation measures. Campers couldn’t make campfires, and the Fourth of July was a night without fireworks. You promoted strong education and outreach programs, hailing the “lost salmon of Lake Warner,” longing for the Pacific and migration. You longed for more funding, and more water. Decision makers argued for decades — is this a drought? Whose fault is this? Who is wasting our water? — As the communities saw their children move away for better opportunities. Even yours, though you needed them there. When they shut down the hatchery, you knew your job would soon follow.
Though you could make more water available through efficiency and more thoughtful allocation and coordination, in the end you just couldn’t create more water. You needed the climate for that. The wet climate of your childhood was gone, and finally you realized this wasn’t a drought. The dryness was something that was as permanent as the rain had seemed in youth. You wondered with despair if you had made things worse by trying to keep things the same.
Lake Warner doesn’t exist, though there is a region of eastern Oregon called the Warner Lakes. It is a vast, dry, and very flat plain, ringed by mountains in a region that is now a high-altitude desert. As recently as about eight thousand years ago, the region was as I described it above, even with the migratory salmon. Human communities ringed the lake or river, which was connected to the Pacific. These conditions existed well after the end of the last glacial period — and the region dried out as a result of relatively small shifts in climate over the past few thousand years.
I like referring to the example of the fisheries manager for a Lake Warner because he or she would be trying hard to keep the salmon populations healthy and stable, but climate change sometimes forces larger, more difficult choices on us. Would we keep managing for salmon populations if we knew the climate would change the availability of water so radically? Probably not. At some point, tradeoffs between water for salmon and water for other uses such as agriculture couldn’t keep pace with the long-term declines, and the opportunity costs associated with that level of investment would be hard or impossible to justify. Could the same country that sent people to the moon do it? Yes, of course. We could move water great distances to maintain the system. But this would be extremely expensive in energy and infrastructure, and perhaps take water resources from other important needs. In a period of climate change, the desire to maintain existing conditions as they are is compelling, but difficult to accomplish.
Yet this is how we are approaching our environment in most parts of the world today: maintaining them for some past climate’s definition of stability. Why do we do it?