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Commentaries and editorials

Wind, Wine, Water

by Knute Berger
PNW Inlander, April 30, 2008

The unfolding crisis of climate change is forcing everyone - politicians, scientists, consumers and citizens - to think in more ecological terms. We're all being forced to recognize that we're interconnected, that environmentally the knee bone is indeed connected to the thigh bone.

It would be too Pollyannaish to claim that a change in consciousness is in the works, but realities are forcing leadership to recognize links - the chains of weather patterns, water supplies, markets, migration routes - and find common cause with others. That may prove to be a valuable attitude in Washington, a state long divided along geographic lines.

The divide here is the Cascade Curtain, the mountain range that separates the Western and Eastern sides of the state. The barrier is real - those mountains aren't just symbolic; it can be tough to cross the passes in winter - but it is also a political and psychological barrier. Western Washington has the people, Eastern Washington has the land. West is wet, East is dry. West is Blue, East is Red.

There has long been a tendency to think the two sides of the state are conjoined twins sharing a rib, rather than a heart. Western Washington, which is politically dominant, tends to ignore the needs of the East. And the angry East has often more identified its interests with the Inland Empire of Montana, Idaho and eastern Oregon.

But the fact is, we need each other. For one thing, water is important to both of us and may be an even more precious commodity in an age of climate change when the problems of supply (shrinking snowpack, drained aquifers, dried-up wells) are compounded by increased demand. Eastern Washington's mighty rivers have been a source of cheap power, which has benefited such Seattle area giants as Boeing, which liked the economical local aluminum it could get because of the hydroelectric dams, and Microsoft, which, along with Yahoo and others, likes those low electric rates so much they are building massive server farms near Quincy.

In addition, the Columbia Basin project is a multi-billion-dollar federal and state initiative looking to build more dams on the Columbia River's tributaries to improve water supplies for area farmers and developers. Governor Christine Gregoire says this project is one of her top priorities. There is grassroots opposition, but it points to the importance regional leaders place on the issue.

The management of rivers is an interesting exercise in the kind of interconnectedness represented by interlocking ecosystems and interests. One of the major ecological issues facing both sides of the state is how the Columbia and Snake rivers are used. River dams have provided cheap power, created reservoirs for recreation, and helped farmers ship their products from East to West via water. On the other hand, the dams have nearly wiped out wild salmon runs from the Pacific to the Rockies, impacting the region's fishing industry.

Seattle environmentalists and Eastern Washington dam advocates have been at loggerheads about the future of the dams. But recognizing common interests may offer a way out. Federal law says the salmon must be saved. A group called Save Our Wild Salmon, with advocates on both sides of the Cascades, is trying to find a solution that would make it palatable to bring down the lower Snake River dams by rerouting wheat shipments onto rail and finding ways to boost local farmers by creating new markets for agricultural products.

Booming, eco-conscious metropolitan Western Washington is a huge potential market for dry-side farmers who are starting to grow specialty wheat for artisanal breadmakers and organic beef for buy-local, health-conscious restaurants. Helping to push this link between East-West pocketbooks and stomachs is the wine industry. Not only are vineyards changing the agricultural face of the state, they are bringing millions of dollars into farm communities through tourism, wine sales and immigration. Booming wine center Walla Walla is a prime example of a community now boasting a grape-fueled quality of life that is attracting travelers, wine tasters and refugees from Seattle and Portland.

Another link driven by climate change: alternative energy. Eastern Washington has sun and wind as well as water. Plans are moving ahead for more wind farms on the hills and plateaus of Columbia country. In addition, biofuels are another crop Puget Sound is hungry for. In spring 2007, King County Executive Ron Sims announced that Metro would fuel some of its buses with two million gallons of biodiesel from Yakima Valley canola fertilized with King County waste. That's not only recycling waste into transit gas tanks, it's economic support for local farmers. Sustainable circles like this are a new model for a warming world.

The old model of East-West relations in Washington was: The West would build roads in the East in exchange for Puget Sound ferry boats in the West. To be nice, wet-siders even named the ferries Spokane, Walla Walla and Wenatchee. Like siblings we balanced some interests, did a little horse-trading and complained about getting in each other's business. Once a year, we fought it out at the Apple Cup.

But the new era suggests that climate, history and self-interest require both sides of the Cascades recognize that we need each other to get through this. As the glaciers retreat, it's time to raise the curtain on a new way of doing business.

Knute Berger is a Seattle writer. This article first appeared in Washington Law & Politics magazine.
Wind, Wine, Water
PNW Inlander, April 30, 2008

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