3.2 Ecosystems and Water

Sustainable Washington

3.2 Ecosystems and Water


Ecosystems include both non-living elements (such as energy, water, air, substrate, and chemical nutrients) and living elements (such as plants, vertebrate animals, invertebrates, and microorganisms).  While elements of the ecosystem have value in themselves, the ecosystem elements also function together to create ecosystem services that provide important benefits to society.  Ecosystem services provide a broad spectrum of benefits, including such important societal needs as clean air, clean water, pest control, food production, hazard mitigation, and climate regulation. 

Failure to preserve ecosystem services results in unintentional costs to society, either through new environmental challenges such as flooding or pollution, or as a result of protective regulations from the state or federal government. Along with concern for individual ecosystem elements, planners can include consideration of ecosystem services as a part of our necessary infrastructure.  This will allow us to plan more efficiently and effectively for the future and to make cost-effective decisions that respond to the urgent and long-term issues of climate change.

Climate change will likely alter the frequency and severity of episodic disturbance events (e.g., wildfire, floods, drought, insect outbreaks, distribution of pathogens).  These changes and ongoing patterns of development interact with ecosystem elements as highlighted below.

Hydrology – The continuing increase in impermeable surfaces from land development prevents groundwater recharge and can create destructive runoff patterns and reduce the treatment capacity of natural systems. Projected hydrologic changes across the state under climate change scenarios are closely linked with future projections of precipitation and temperature.  According to projections by the Climate Impacts Group, April 1 snowpack is projected to decrease by nearly 30% across the state by the 2020s, by 40% by the 2040s and by 65% by the 2080s.[1]  Seasonal stream flow timing would shift due to decreased snowpack and earlier melt, especially in sensitive watersheds. Levels of summer and fall water storage in the Puget Sound and the Yakima Basin reservoir system would be reduced and would  likely result in lower water supply for all users.[2]

Wetlands  – There is a vital connection between wetlands and climate change. Among the most productive ecosystems in the world, wetlands account for 6% of the Earth’s land surface, store 20% of its carbon, produce 25% of its food, purify water, and perform a multitude of other ecological functions. Wetlands on non-federal land in the U.S. are disappearing at a rate of 70,000 to 90,000 acres annually. In the 1600s, over 220 million acres of wetlands are thought to have existed in the lower 48 states. By the 1980s, only an estimated 103 million acres remained.

Species/Habitat – For many species, climate change is accelerating long-term trends already associated with other types of human activity, producing a "biodiversity deficit." This is because ecosystems are being destroyed faster than nature can create new ones, and because habitats are being modified faster than species’ natural ability to evolve or adapt. Rates of species extinction are currently estimated at one hundred to one thousand times higher than occurred during pre-human eras. In North America, an estimated 36% of fish, 35% of amphibians, 17% of mammals, and 11% of birds are either in jeopardy or already extinct. 

For the Northwest region, salmon is both culturally iconic and economically important. Climate plays a crucial role in salmon ecology at every stage of their life cycle.  Rising stream temperatures will reduce the quality and extent of freshwater salmon habitat. In the major river systems of Puget Sound and lower elevation basins in the interior Columbia Basin, increased flooding due to shifts in precipitation patterns and earlier snow melt will harm crucial spawning habitat from streambed scouring.[3]

Forests  – Climate influences nearly all aspects of forest ecosystems. The world has lost 1.5 billion acres of forest in the last 200 years. Forest fires, insect outbreaks, tree species’ ranges and forest productivity are closely tied to climate. The combined climate change impacts on tree growth, regeneration, fire, and insects will fundamentally change the nature of forests, particularly in ecosystems where water deficits are greatest.  Due to climatic stress on host trees, mountain pine beetle outbreaks are projected to increase in frequency and cause increased tree disease and mortality.[4] Combined with changes in summer precipitation and temperature, the area burned by regional forest fires is projected to increase significantly.

Coastal Areas  – Washington State’s approximately 3000 miles of coastline are diverse, ranging from the sandy beaches and shallow waters of Willapa Bay, to steep rocky shores in the San Juan Islands, to heavily populated, unstable bluffs of the Puget Sound region. While global climate change will drive similar basic physical changes throughout the region, shoreline areas will respond differently depending upon substrate (sand versus bedrock), slope (shallow versus steep cliffs), and the surrounding conditions (exposed versus sheltered from storms).  Sea level rise will shift coastal beaches inland and increase erosion of unstable bluffs, endangering houses and other structures built near the shore and bluff edges. The Department of Ecology has estimated between 2 and 13 inches of sea level rise along Washington shorelines by 2100.[6] Although sea level rise has received some of the most wide-spread attention, other impacts related to climate change – such as ocean acidification and habitat impact – have the potential for equally devastating effects on species survival and food resources.

The following list of actions is separated into three categories: Getting Started, Making a Commitment, and Expanding the Commitment. This graduated approach allows jurisdictions to implement measures that are appropriate to their community’s current level of involvement in climate change and sustainability issues and in consideration of locally adopted plans, codes, regulations, policies and goals.

Getting Started

3.2.1 Develop and articulate a common vision.

Develop and adopt policy language supportive of a common vision on climate change as part of Comprehensive Plans, capital facility plans, park plans, etc. A common vision is needed regarding changing climate conditions to help galvanize and focus resources and identify areas in need of innovative problem solving. (Local Action)

3.2.2 Restore and retain farms and forest lands.

If not already accomplished, establish and adopt policies and tools that restrict development to occur within the urban growth boundary. Use planning and zoning tools to restore and retain the health and vitality of Washington’s farms and forest lands. Healthy farms and forests increase carbon sequestration and storage, reduce the releases of GHG emissions, and support the provision of biomass fuels and energy.[7] (Local and Regional Action)

3.2.3 Optimize flood control and stormwater codes.

Require stormwater retention techniques, such as Low Impact Development (LID), in both public infrastructure and private development to support, enhance and restore natural habitats. (Local Action)

3.2.4 Guide development away from floodplains and barrier beaches.

In order to protect important ecosystem functions, revise zoning, shoreline, and other codes to guide development away from floodplains and away from barrier beaches. (Local and State Action)

3.2.5 Realign shorelines and critical areas protections.

Align state regulations for both Shoreline Master Programs and critical areas regulations to avoid duplication and to clarify that the science should apply comprehensively and consistently to these important ecosystems. (Local and State Action)

3.2.6 Increase acquisition of open spaces.

Utilize an ecosystem-based approach in the evaluation of potential open spaces. Consider potential acquisitions based on the ability to mitigate an area’s vulnerability to climate change and the ecosystem’s ability to help the community adapt to climate change. Integrate ecosystem considerations in the planning for new open space use and design. (Local and Regional Action)

Green Kirkland Partnership youth volunteer group.

3.2.7 Protect existing trees and encourage the planting of new trees.

Adopt a tree protection and replacement ordinance, targeting “the right tree for the right place.” Require shade trees, preferably native, where feasible and appropriate, in landscape plans for all new development proposals. (Local Action) Kirkland’s Tree Preservation Program has earned it a designation of Tree City USA for the past seven years, see Project Example #1.

3.2.8 Provide education about water conservation.

Use available programs and incentives to promote education about water conservation. Design outreach activities at different levels, targeting those who make no efforts to conserve as well as those who need additional guidance to increase their conservation achievements. (Local, Regional and State Action) See Spokane's water stewartship program as an example.

Making a Commitment

3.2.9 Guide ongoing and proposed research efforts.

Resource managers will need a new suite of monitoring and analytical tools to focus on and track the effects of climate change. In order to guide future conservation efforts, these tools must developed in ways that produce results which can be correlated with corrective actions implemented through local planning. For example, data collection and management in coastal areas should be conducted so as to inform later updates of Shoreline Management Plans. (Local, Regional, and State Action)

3.2.10 Maintain open space connectivity and corridors.

Many of our currently protected areas, whether they are parks, refuges or other conservation areas, are too small and fragmented to maintain the integrity, diversity and health of the populations that are found in these areas. In addition, species adaptation may require the ability to migrate or relocate as habitat conditions change. Use a landscape-level analysis to define connectivity and corridors, along with an expanded system of land acquisition, subsidies and land incentives, and multi-stakeholder consultation. (Local, Regional and State Action)
Webmaster: insert photo from Project Example #3 with this caption: The Ridges to River Open Space Network (RROSN) coordinates  regional open space in the mid-Columbia region.

3.2.11 Minimize or eliminate the use of extracted underground toxic materials.

Identify and discourage the types of development, agriculture, and other land uses that result in the extraction of underground substances such as mercury, cadmium, and phosphorus. These substances do not readily disappear or get re-absorbed by the Earth. As a result, increased levels of toxic substances in natural systems are jeopardizing ecosystems, wildlife, water supplies, soil, food, and human health. (State Action)

3.2.12 Reduce the use of chemicals and synthetic compounds.

Encourage development and businesses to reduce the use of chemicals and synthetic compounds in their construction and building materials, operations, products, and services.  (Local and State Action)

3.2.13 Reduce water use and require conservation.

Provide incentives and requirements to use green building techniques, as certified by the USGBC or other rating authorities. Mandate approaches to new development, as well as operations of businesses and agriculture that reduce the use of water. Require conservation in ongoing operations and maintenance activities, such as restricting the use of water for cleaning outdoor surfaces and vehicles or promoting water-efficient irrigation systems and landscapes.  Adopt water conservation pricing, e.g., tiered rate structures, to encourage efficient water use. (Local and Regional Action)

3.2.14 Reuse water.

Encourage and remove barriers to the use of rainwater, gray water and wastewater on-site for non-potable water needs, employing innovative wastewater treatment techniques that minimize or eliminate the use of chemicals. Promote the use of graywater and reclaimed water that can be used for industrial and irrigation purposes to help offset the potential impacts of climate change on summer stream-flows and water supplies. (Local and State Action)

3.2.15 Reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers.

Encourage methods of landscape design, park maintenance, and agriculture that reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. Adopt new procedures for the maintenance of public lands and provide education to private property owners. (Local and State Action)

3.2.16 Encourage use of native plants

Encourage or mandate the use of native plants in landscaping for new developments and publicly owned spaces to provide habitat for native insects, amphibians, birds, etc. that are in decline. Also, provide incentives to reduce the amount of lawn area, since it uses a disproportionate amount of water in summer when it is scarce, is a monoculture not supportive of native species, and is the source of much of the fertilizer and pesticide run-off from residential and recreation areas. (Local Action) Spokane’s Water Stewardship Plan provides a good example.

Expanding the Commitment

3.2.17 Require water efficient retrofits.

Adopt water efficiency retrofit ordinances that require upgrades as a condition of issuing permits for renovations or additions and for the sale of residences and buildings. (Local Action)

3.2.18 Implement a Green System Development Charges (SDC) program.

Develop a program using Green SDCs (gSDCs) charges to support the acquisition and maintenance of natural areas to assure their continued production of ecosystem services.  “Ecosystem services” refers to services provided by ecosystems that are necessary for a healthy planet like oxygen production, water purification, pollination, soil formation and nutrient recycling. Acquired lands under this program may include headwaters of drinking water supplies, filtering wetlands or riparian areas, or groundwater recharge areas. (Local Action)

3.2.19 Implement a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program.

TDRs allow for equitable redistribution of the costs needed to protect our natural systems and the value of the developable lands. Refer to the Land Use Section. Both King County and Snohomish County have implemented successful TDR programs. (Local, Regional, and State Action)

3.2.20 Create ecosystem services special districts.

Use of a special district, much like a utility district, allows for the costs of acquiring, maintaining or developing ecosystem services to be distributed fairly across all residents and businesses that receive their benefits. This is the preferred option when data or metrics for ecosystem services are difficult to determine in developed areas, and only generalized assessments can be developed (Local and Regional Action)

3.2.21 Develop a community-wide water budget

Calculate the inputs and outputs of water in the community. To achieve water balance, the inputs (precipitation, surface flow and piped in water) should equal the outputs  (run-off, evapotranspiration, and infiltration). Develop mechanisms to achieve a water balance. (Local. Regional, and State Action)

3.2.22 Develop market-based mitigation programs.

A market-based system of tradable credits may be used to meet goals for protecting ecosystem services when measurements of ecosystem services are available for an area. In this system, credit requirements are set for new development, assuring that lost ecosystem services are replaced by conservation of other areas. Credit trading also leads to increased revenue options for conservation-minded owners and permits lower cost mitigation for developers. (Regional and State Action)


1 WACCIA Pp 1-2.

2 ibid.

3 WACCIA Pp 13-14.

4 ibid.

6 DOE Publication 09-01-006, Responding to Climate Change.

7 CAT LTW Pg 53

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