State of Change: Nursery of the Sea

“The changing climate will likely have significant impacts along the coast and estuarine shorelines of Oregon. Changes associated with global climate change include rising sea levels, storminess, rising water temperatures and ocean acidification.”
Oregon Climate Assessment Report

In Florence, Oregon, Sandra Belson, the city's director of community development, links the health of the Siuslaw Estuary with the economy. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum, OSU Extension and Experiment Station Communications)
In Florence, Oregon, Sandra Belson, the city’s director of community development, links the health of the Siuslaw Estuary with the economy. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum, OSU Extension and Experiment Station Communications)

By Lee Anna Sherman

FLORENCE, Oregon – Several dozen people cluster under the Siuslaw River Bridge, colorfully zipped into fleece and Gore-Tex against the damp marine air. As a bitter wind tugs at their hats and mufflers, they listen to local planning officials tell stories of this place called Siuslaw Estuary. Once upon a time, these waters were home to millions of Coho salmon. That was before intensive fishing, farming and logging severely stressed the fragile ecosystem. Today, only a few thousand of the prized fish return each year to spawn in the streams and creeks draining the watershed.

“An estuary is where saltwater mixes with freshwater,” explains one of the guides, city engineer Dan Graber, as he gestures at the rain-swollen river racing toward the breakers just beyond the bridge. “It’s very important rearing habitat for the ocean-going salmonids.”

State of Change

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Sandra Belson, the city’s director of community development, elaborates. “It’s the nursery for all the sea creatures — not only for salmon, but for crabs and clams and for birdlife, too. Because of the mixing of seawater and freshwater, the estuarine ecosystem is very diverse.”

Partners in Protection

Just as biological diversity ensures productive habitat, so human diversity ensures productive environmental action. Belson and Graber, who led the fleece-bundled visitors that blustery day on the estuary, are members of the Siuslaw Estuary Partnership, a team representing nearly 20 government agencies, nonprofits, tribes and consulting firms wrapped under the mantle of watershed protection and restoration. In 2009, they won a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regenerate the watershed where the endangered Coho are struggling to survive.

“We had some contentious issues locally,” says Belson. “We realized that the driving force behind all of those issues was water: storm water, surface water, groundwater, seawater, freshwater. It’s all connected. Through this project, we’ve been able to get everybody together — to find common ground on a scientific basis.”

The estuary field trip was a highlight of the annual Heceta Head Coastal Conference, which the partnership co-sponsored with Oregon Sea Grant in October. Another of the partnership’s recent initiatives was a comprehensive climate change study. A thick report issued by the City of Florence in April traces the science of estuaries and posits the likely effects of planetary warming on Oregon’s coastal ecosystems and communities. The document draws heavily on the Oregon Climate Assessment Report, citing it more than 50 times.

At an open house in April, locals gathered to hear OCCRI scientists describe how global warming could alter Florence’s beaches, threaten its drinking water, damage its wetlands and tip the delicate balance of sea life in the already-troubled estuary. Getting out ahead of climate impacts is the community’s best hedge against ecological and economic adversity, the OCCRI experts counseled.

Stormy Weather

One mist-shrouded morning, Belson and Mike Miller, director of public works, sit in her City Hall office on Highway 101, where traffic kicks up a steady spray of rainwater. “To me, the biggest threat to our community is the frequency and intensity of storms,” says Belson, who first tackled climate issues as a Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa. “Bigger storms will mean stronger wave action and heavier runoff. Those forces will speed coastal erosion.”

Miller came to Florence from Bend, where the looming climate worry was dwindling snowpack. “The estuary is vulnerable because it’s so dynamic,” he says. “Changes in the ocean — whether it be El Niño or La Niña or higher temperatures or acidification — affect the estuary, along with changes on the land, from erosion to rainfall to contaminants. The estuary gets impacts from both sides. That’s what makes it particularly fragile.”

Rising sea level is another concern on the community’s horizon. As polar ice and glaciers melt, seas are getting higher along with waves and tides. Higher tides carry saltwater farther inland, where it can intrude on freshwater systems. The aquifer that supplies Florence’s drinking water could be at risk for inundation. Oregon’s only federally designated “sole-source aquifer,” this pristine reservoir holds millions of gallons of rainwater that has filtered through Florence’s famous sand dunes.

Despite Florence’s status as a forward-looking town whose environmental leadership is perhaps unmatched on the Oregon coast, the topic of climate change still raises hackles for some, according to Belson. In July when the city council considered the Siuslaw Estuary Partnership’s Climate Change Report, the councilors “decided to not set policy regarding climate change at the current time,” the minutes show.

Meanwhile, the partnership is moving ahead with wetlands restoration and water monitoring. Going straight for solutions while sidestepping the contentious public debate seems to Belson like a pragmatic approach — at least for now. “One of our county commissioners told us we shouldn’t discuss whether climate change is or isn’t happening, but to focus instead on the strategies for dealing with whatever environmental stresses may come about,” she says. “That way we can be resilient and adaptable to anything that may happen, whether it’s a tsunami or an invasive species or human-caused climate change.”