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Experts detail climate change impacts on local economy

Wildfires that have plagued Oregon in recent years could cause people to view the Rogue Valley, and the state as a whole, as a riskier and costlier place to live and do business.

That’s just one of the findings presented by officials last week as part of the city of Medford’s continuing series addressing the impacts of climate change on Southern Oregon.

Speakers focused Thursday on the region’s overall economic outlook under extreme environmental factors, as well as how the area’s wine industry could be affected.

Guy Tauer, regional economist with the Oregon Employment Department, spoke about how climate change could influence future regional economic trends. He said the increased risk of droughts and wildfires lowers prospects for economic growth because of increased uncertainty and higher costs of living.

The number of fires and their severity has been on the rise in the Northwest. In recent years, there have been more unhealthy air quality days in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties because of wildfires.

That has affected outdoor activities and recreation, including the Britt Festival and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Tauer said.

“The scariest potential impacts for Oregon is that fewer households and investments may be attracted to the region moving forward,” according to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. “Oregon’s primary competitive advantage remains its ability to draw skilled workers away from other states.”

Slower-than-anticipated population growth could result in reduced economic growth for the region. While Oregon, Washington and Colorado traditionally have been popular places for people to relocate, Tauer said migration in recent years has shifted to other western states, such as Idaho, Montana and Utah.

Jackson County’s rate of population growth has slowed and is expected to continue slowing well into this century. By 2072, the county’s population is predicted to reach nearly 292,000. In 2020, it was at about 226,000.

The Population Research Center predicts that Jackson County’s average annual population growth rate will decrease over the next 50 years. The expected 1% growth rate in 2022 will dip to 0.4% by 2040 — and remain there at least until 2072, Tauer said.

Agriculture and manufacturing could be significantly affected by climate change, which will require the local economy to adapt, according to the Economic Analysis report. Agricultural businesses will have to determine whether they can grow different crops or create products with available resources that are also salable.

Drought affects agriculture and rural economies significantly. Most of Jackson County is in the “extreme drought” category while the bulk of Josephine County is in “severe drought,” the National Integrated Drought Information System reported.

People who produce grapes and wine will have to be flexible in the face of climate change, said Gregory Jones, a climatologist and CEO of Abacela Winery of Roseburg.

Southern Oregon’s viticultural areas provide the state with 27% of its total wine production, 21% of its vineyards and 18% of its wineries. The region’s total crop value is $48 million, Jones said.

Temperatures in the Pacific Northwest have warmed by 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the early 20th century — a warming trend that Jones said has “accelerated over the past three to four decades.”

Statewide climate trends from 1948 to 2015 show warmer overall temperatures and changes in the timing of frost that could affect grape crops.

Jones listed several challenges that will continue to be faced by those involved with viticulture and wine production, including water resource issues; heat and drought stress; pest occurrence and severity; ripening characteristics and wine styles; long-term suitability of varietals; and increasing adaptive capacity and reducing vulnerability.

He said the western United States will probably see a longer dry season. Winter precipitation will likely fall more frequently as rain than snow, even in the higher elevations. And it’s likely to come from fewer, more intense events such as atmospheric rivers — long, flowing regions of air that carry water vapor through the sky.

“Wild swings between dry and wet conditions will likely jeopardize the region’s efforts to store water for municipal and agricultural uses and control flooding,” Jones said.

He pointed out that projections of temperature increases of 3 degrees by the middle of the century would change what grape varieties are suitable for growing in Oregon. Warmer temperatures would require production to shift to varieties more suitable to the new growing climate.

Irrigation water provides growers with the ability to control vine growth, grape yield and quality. It can be especially important in establishing new grapevines.

In the Rogue Valley, if water supplies are cut off midseason, Jones said growers will likely end up with smaller berries, smaller clusters and lower yields.

Wildfires can negatively affect the taste of wine produced from grapes exposed to smoke. The taste and smell of smoke only becomes noticeable once the grapes begin fermenting, and continue to develop after the wine is bottled and matures.

The series of monthly presentations is part of the city’s Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Plan. The 28-page document is in draft form and will be used to assist city government as well as residents and businesses in addressing climate-related challenges if adopted by the Medford City Council.