The Bellingham Herald
Sea-level rise is coming for Washington communities. Here’s how Whatcom is preparing
Washington’s shorelines are at risk as scientists predict an average 4 to 6 inches of sea-level rise for the region over the next three decades, according to a new government report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies.
In Whatcom County, that has profound implications for coastal communities, tribes, ecosystems and agriculture. Rising sea levels could also increase flooding inland, as the Nooksack River’s flow into Bellingham Bay is further obstructed by pressure from the ocean, said Ellyn Murphy, chair of Whatcom’s Climate Impact Advisory Committee.
The new federal report is a stark reminder of how our lives and communities are being altered by human-caused climate change, which fuels sea-level rise as warming seawater expands and ice sheets and glaciers melt. The document’s findings, which update those from 2017 and project about a foot of sea-level rise by 2050 across the U.S. on average, elicited calls to action from leaders nationwide, including Sen. Maria Cantwell from Washington.
“Today’s NOAA report is alarming – in the next 30 years the sea will rise as much as it has in the last 100 years,” Cantwell said in a statement on Tuesday, Feb. 15. “We have to ensure that our coastal communities have the tools and resources to prepare and adapt to climate change and sea-level rise.”-
Almost 10% of Whatcom’s population — more than 20,000 people — live in the 100-year floodplain, or the area that has a 1% chance of flooding each year, according to NOAA. There is critical infrastructure in this at-risk area: four schools, one police station and four fire stations.
NOAA’s sea-level rise projections until 2050 are highly certain, even if humans do dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions spewed into the atmosphere as we continue to burn fossil fuels, the agency says. But we still need to curb our emissions, the agency warned in the report. Failing to do so could cause even worse sea-level rise — between 1.5 and 5 additional feet by the end of the century.
Whatcom, Lummi plans
Whatcom is already confronting how rising oceans will change our communities. Last year, the public and County Council asked county staff to include sea-level rise in the 2021 update to its Shoreline Management Program, a land-use policy and regulation document, said Chris Elder, senior planner of natural resources for the county, in an email to The Bellingham Herald.
But the county staff needed more data to determine the extent and potential impacts of sea-level rise, so it hasn’t yet been included in county code modifications, Elder said. However, the conversation prompted the county to apply for and earn $100,000 in state Department of Ecology grant funds to complete a project that will guide how sea-level rise should be integrated into local planning efforts. A number of other organizations and governments will participate in the project: Bellingham, Ferndale and Blaine cities, Port of Bellingham, Lummi Nation, U.S. Geological Survey and Washington Sea Grant.
“Several of these organizations are already implementing their own coastal resilience projects and we’re hoping that through this County effort we can really get all Whatcom coastal jurisdictions on a similar page of understanding around the impacts and build some collaborative efforts to address those impacts,” Elder wrote in an email to The Herald.
The county and other local partners are also providing support and funding for the Puget Sound Coastal Storm Modeling System, an effort by the U.S. Geological Survey to arm communities with tools for assessing and managing sea-level rise impacts.
The Lummi Nation is particularly vulnerable to the creeping fingers of sea-level rise: The low-lying reservation is home to the Lummi River floodplain and is bordered to the east by the Nooksack River floodplain, according to the 2016 Lummi Nation Atlas. In November, flooding from the Nooksack River cut off the reservation from the mainland.
Sea-level rise endangers Lummi Schelangen, or “way of life,” according to the tribe’s 2016 Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Plan: It will inundate much of the tidelands that make up about a third of the reservation’s acreage. Tidelands provide important habitat to shellfish, which the tribe harvests for food, and are important for ceremonial and commercial reasons. Coastal erosion could damage tribal burial sites, archaeological sites and artifacts.
When the seas come, sometimes the best option is to pick up and move, the tribe’s plan determined: “In some areas, managed retreat, wherein inland migration is facilitated, is likely to be the most viable long-term option to protect human life and reduce property damages.”