The Strange Case of Rattlesnake Ridge

There are few things that are certain in life, big or small. Big like the stock market, trade deals, and elections. Small like, well . . . that all depends on your perspective. A change in a school schedule, a bus route, or the weather can be huge if your family schedule or your way of making a living depends on it. Here in the Midwest, the rolling hills and wide plains, sculpted by glaciers, water, and wind, are one of the few items that fall into the pretty darn reliable category. When we wake up in the morning and look out the window, the leaves on the trees change color, the corn grows higher and then it’s gone, the cattle slowly chase the best forage in the pasture, but the landform is essentially the same.

Rattlesnake Ridge Landslide, Credit: Washington DNR

For the 6,000+ residents of Union Gap, Washington State, the land is changing beneath their feet – or rather over their heads. In October 2017, they learned that a 20-acre chunk of Rattlesnake Ridge, a large bluff overlooking the town, was headed in their direction at the rate of 2.5 inches per day, or over a foot a week. While this landslide is bad news for Union Gap, knowing about it ahead of time is far better than the prospect of being buried by an amount of land that would fill Lake Mendota (a lake just north of the UW-Madison campus) over 6,000 times. The warning has allowed people time to evacuate and given scientists a chance to study the ridge’s movement as gravity propels it downward.

This luxury of time is unfortunately rare where landslides are concerned, leading to thousands of deaths annually and substantial loss of property worldwide. For many water-related issues, the slow pace of change is both a blessing and a curse. Whether it’s the slow leak of nutrients into lakes and streams, the steady march of pavement across the landscape leading to increasing runoff volumes, or the aging of water infrastructure, there is an underlying pattern: a slow decrease in stability triggering event, collapse – or at least overwhelming damage.

The relatively slow pace of changes in water supply and quality are tough for people to comprehend and manage. Our wiring for long-term thinking is there, but it can be overwhelmed by signals that seem, and perhaps are, more urgent. Big urgent things like passing a federal budget, and small(ish) urgent things like waking up to no hot water this morning and needing to trouble-shoot (thankfully, just a tripped GFI outlet in the basement) can overpower longer-term things like sufficient funding for agriculture and water quality research and outreach or water infrastructure.

Fortunately, like the case of Union Gap and Rattlesnake Ridge, we often have early warnings of potential system failures, failures that can have catastrophic and expensive consequences. Lake systems, river systems, drinking water systems, and urban stormwater management systems all send signals that something needs to change. Sometimes these signals are detected by scientists with big grants and expensive monitoring equipment. Sometimes they are detected by local anglers who notice changes in fish habitat quality, or a homeowner whose basement floods every year instead of every ten. These signals inform management and outreach efforts like Kara Salazar‘s work as a Sustainable Communities Extension Specialist for Purdue University’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. While we know that large-scale water infrastructure improvements are essential, the Purdue Rainscaping Education Program reminds us that we all have a vital role to play in water stewardship. Small water infrastructure projects can make a big difference when placed strategically and with enough participants.

In addition to reducing stormwater runoff volume by over 170,000 gallons a year, rainscaping projects like Salazar’s and similar projects that engage citizens are helping combat the kind of social challenges that arise from what Daniel Kahneman and Glen Klein (2009) call a world of “fractionated expertise.” These projects bring people with different backgrounds and skill sets together around common goals. When we bring water stewardship back into the community, we learn new things about the places we live and work and we learn about each other. Perhaps we learn to trust one another just a little bit more – a seemingly small change that is a big win in today’s world. These are the kinds of changes that Extension educators and other local leaders are working toward every day. They are improving our water and renewing community relationships essential for long-term certainty and stability – something we could all use a little more of these days.


Rebecca Power, Network Director


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