By Benjamin Drummond and Sara Steele
Republished with permission from Facing Climate Change
A warmer climate is changing agricultural landscapes throughout the Pacific Northwest. Droughts are expected to occur more frequently, and in some places, more precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow. In the Columbia River Basin, spring snowpack is projected to decrease by more than half by 2100. These factors will make summer water less available in some rivers, presenting difficult choices to farmers who depend on summer stream flow for irrigation.
The Bell Rapids Project developed 25,000 acres of irrigated farmland high above the Snake River when water was cheap and plentiful. As competition for that water grew, irrigation costs rose and crop prices fell, making irrigation at Bell Rapids harder to justify. The state purchased the project’s water rights to support salmon and steelhead recovery. New wind farms pick up speed in the fallow fields as the local economy – and potato farmers like John O’Conner – capitalize on more profitable uses.
Less snowmelt will impact hydropower, salmon, farmers, and cities all across the West. While the farmers of Bell Rapids successfully navigated the transition from irrigated agriculture to other uses, other farms may not be as fortunate. The winds of change are blowing in all directions, creating new opportunities and challenges for the landscapes and livelihoods of those in their path.