Climate Change and the Future of Vashon

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My wife and I have been living on Vashon since 1993.  In those 25 years, the island has changed relatively little.  There has been some building going on, certainly, and businesses came and went and moved around on the island, but the fundamental structure of our community has been rather stable.  We islanders tend to take that stability for granted and assume that the island will remain a quiet, rural community for years to come.  Our twin barriers of water supply and ferry transportation will keep us isolated.

Looking into the future, however, I think that our island stability is much less likely to persist.  Vashon in another twenty-five years from now is likely to be quite different, even transformed, from what it is today.  Climate change projections pouring out of the scientific community grow more and more frightening, and we islanders must accept the idea that life as we know it is likely to change.  In this piece, I will explore one possibility for dramatic change.  But this is only one possibility – there are many.  Our future is worrisome – vigilance and resilience will be required to get us through what is to come.

The study of climate-based migration is just beginning, but there have been several articles recently that talked about the estimated effects of climate change on human population flows.  Climate change is expected to affect every area of our country and the planet, and people can be expected to react to sea level rise, intensive storms, climbing temperatures, massive fires, declining water supplies, etc., in the way that they have always done, by moving to more enticing places.  The Pacific Northwest is always identified as a place people will migrate towards in response to climate change.  The region is shown on climate change projections as maintaining a more livable environment right up to 2050 and beyond.

A friend was recently chatting with someone from California who was on Vashon scouting for property and thinking of moving to the region.  When asked why he was thinking of moving, the visitor said, “It was 116 in Pasadena this summer”.  Clearly, one day of high temperatures is not enough to make someone move here all the way from California.  What the visitor meant was that temperatures are steadily increasing in the south and expected to keep climbing.  Looking at that scenario, the visitor is thinking that the Pacific Northwest has a much better future than Southern California.  Better to move to an area that has a future, while you can.

That visitor will not be the only one to think this way.  And as climate change bites in, more and more people are going to come to the same conclusion.  King County has already estimated about 100,000 migrants coming in during this last year.  We have all seen the countless cranes building new apartment and commercial buildings and the ever-worsening traffic on the major highways.  Commute times are going up, tempers are flaring, and gridlock is the rule rather than the exception.

There are, of course, a lot of factors that affect migration, and climate change is only one of them.  The job market, the natural environment, the presence of relatives and friends, housing prices, traffic, living amenities, all act on the migration stream.  But if the studies are correct, as climate change intensifies we can expect an ever-growing flow of climate-based migrants headed north from California, Arizona and elsewhere, moving to the Pacific Northwest.

What will be the impact of such a migration stream?  King County is already heavily populated, as anyone who has been on I-5 recently can testify.  Everett and Tacoma are also densely settled, and the freeways north and south are legendary for their traffic jams.  How many more residents can we pack into those areas before conditions become unlivable?  Imagine that 100,000 people were to move here each year – that would add a million people in ten years.  King County’s population today is around 2 million, so can the region absorb a 50% increase in people?  Where are we going to put them?  And unlike international migrants, there is no limit to this kind of migration.  These folks are US citizens, and we can’t restrict their right to move here.  We must find a way to make room for them, especially as conditions worsen in the south.

What to do?  The north, south and east of Seattle are already heavily populated.  The only part of this region that remains thinly settled is the area west of the Sound.  Jefferson County had a population of just 30,000 in 2010, Mason County just 61,000, Clallam County 71,000, Kitsap County 250,000.  And Vashon only 11,000.  There’s a lot of land in the west, a relatively thin population, good natural resources, and a decent economy.  It’s a great place to put hundreds of thousands of extra people.

The problem is cross-sound transportation.  To direct some of the migration stream that way, the planners must greatly improve the ability to move people back and forth across the Puget Sound.  They can’t send them south around the Sound through Tacoma – that way is already jammed up.  They will have to be able to move thousands of people an hour across the Sound in a trip that takes only few minutes.  Ferries will not do it.  No conceivable improvement to the ferry system will allow that kind of transportation flow.

That leaves two options – a bridge or a tunnel.  A bridge has been proposed several times, and there was a serious proposal that was blocked back in the 1950’s.  Alternative recent proposals by a civil engineer revolve around underwater tunnels, a technology that has apparently had great success in Japan and Scandinavia.  If climate migration intensifies, it is reasonable to assume that the idea of a bridge and/or tunnel will be revived and may well be eventually implemented.  Urban planners in the Puget Sound region are going to have little choice.  Their options are very limited, and the land to the west of the sound is very tempting.

The cost of such a solution will be high, of course.  But given the kind of population pressure that climate change is likely to bring, the costs will seem more and more reasonable as time goes on.  This will not happen soon.  Not this year, nor next year, probably not for a decade or more.  But climate change is not going away, and as we and the rest of the planet fritter away our opportunities to control or mitigate it, the impact will grow and grow until huge numbers of people are on the move.   A good number of those people may be heading in our direction.

What does this mean for Vashon?  Bridge proposals in the past have routed the bridge through Vashon, connecting West Seattle with Kitsap County.  A bridge like that would dramatically reduce travel time across the Sound and transform the commute for islanders and for those in the west.  It could also greatly affect the lifestyle of the island.  We would become a lot more accessible, and the pressure on land and population would intensify.  But if the sole source aquifer issue remained the same, population would be restricted from increasing too much, for fear of outrunning the water supply.

The real change would come if the bridge/tunnel brought an additional water supply with it.  That could open the door to much more dramatic development.  Vashon Maury Island has 37 square miles of territory, one and a half times the size of Manhattan Island.  There is plenty of room for people on this island, if the water supply can support them.  We, of course, would oppose such a development, but I believe our pleas would fall on deaf ears if the scenario I have imagined comes to pass.   With that many people clamoring for a place to live, the planners will have little choice.

I am frankly very worried about our future.  Climate change is a mighty and relentless force.  The entire planet is in play.  The oceans are in play, as is the atmosphere and the water supply.  Even the future of the human race is in play.  We can’t expect that little Vashon will somehow escape great changes as all this unfolds over the next decades.  The scenario that I have imagined in this article is only one way that changes could come.  There could be others, unforeseen.  We need to look squarely into the future of the island and begin to watch closely and plan our response as developments accelerate.

I am an advocate of the Transition Town model as an approach to this problem and will be giving a talk in the near future about that model and its relevance to the future of Vashon.  Those who are interested in attending and taking part in the discussion should send me an email at sngraham98070@gmail.com.  I will make sure that you’re informed and invited.