Know the Flow: Using Science to Protect Idaho’s Water Resources and Quality of Life
This is a sample blog post composed at the NSF “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop in Boise, Idaho, May 29-30, 2013.
When people think about Idaho, an image often comes to mind of untrammeled wilderness, deep gorges and powerful rivers, perhaps dotted with the occasional fly fisherman, trying to land salmon as they travel upstream to spawn. Life unfolds against a backdrop of stunning scenery and is suffused with an appreciation of the outdoors—for nature drives a significant part of our tourist economy, as well as our quality of life.
However, those rivers that sustain us, and that make Idaho what it is, also underscore a key risk to the state. Idaho already leads the nation in its per capita consumption of water resources for agriculture, hydroelectric power, human consumption, and other needs. What’s more, in recent years Idaho has had one of the fastest growing populations in the U.S., meaning that its water demands are steadily increasing. This will present a considerable future strain, fueling increased water conflicts and ultimately threatening our very quality of life—and all the more so if it is compounded by climate change. Global warming is expected to further destabilize our water system by rendering rainfall and river flows more variable and unpredictable, and overall, by increasing flooding potential and decreasing the storage of water in the mountain snowpack that ultimately feeds our rivers. (Not to mention raising the risk of wildfires and droughts, as much of the state experienced in 2012.)
There’s a way to manage this problem sustainably—and intelligently. However, that will require a much greater scientific understanding than we currently possess about the kinds of water changes we’ll see, and how they’ll impact us across all sectors, from agriculture to the tourism industry.
Fortunately, scientists in Idaho are hard at work trying to determine how to manage our water resources, in light of climate change, to ensure a sustainable future. Thanks to a five year and up to $ 18 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation’s EPSCoR program (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), they’re trying to generate a much more comprehensive understanding of where our water is going and how it is being used in the first place. That’s the first step in creating policies that will protect our agricultural industry and preserve or even improve our quality of life–which is, after all, the Idaho advantage.
Much of this research is in an early stage–but we’re laser-focused on the problem and already have the methodology in place needed to unravel it. First, we’re using improved satellite technologies to get better data on how farms—the number one water users in the state—and other consumers are currently using water. We’re also closely studying two key river systems, the Snake River Plain and the Salmon River Basin, to examine how groundwater availability will change in the future. Groundwater—literally, water that is under the ground–is critical to Idaho, because although most of our water supplies come from rivers, this second source of H2O could serve as a “buffer” against changes brought on by climate change. If we understand it, that is.
The ultimate goal? So-called “hydrologic forecasting”—in other words, the ability to predict the state of our water resources well into the future, not unlike how a weatherman tells you what to expect in the coming days. Then, we’ll use another set of tools to analyze how these changes will, in turn, reverberate throughout the state and its varied sectors—information that will then feed back into the process of political and economic decision making. Just imagine a state policymaker or business leader being able to, in effect, turn a series of knobs to view what alternative water futures for the state might look like. We’re not there yet—but we need to be, and we will be.
Along the way, this research will also generate considerable scientific innovation and perhaps even new companies—so that the knowledge itself, and its by-products, will doubly enhance Idahoans’ quality of life. If we use our growing knowledge to the utmost, the future promises fewer conflicts over water resources and better management of our natural resources—in short, enough water for all Idahoans.