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What could Idaho’s future look like as climate changes? This economic report details the risks.

A farmer harvests wheat on the Palouse in North Idaho. A new report from the University of Idaho James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy shows how Idaho’s major economic sectors, including agriculture, could be affected in future years by climate change and what can be done to prepare for it. (Jim Black/Pixabay).
A farmer harvests wheat on the Palouse in North Idaho. A new report from the University of Idaho James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy shows how Idaho’s major economic sectors, including agriculture, could be affected in future years by climate change and what can be done to prepare for it. (Jim Black/Pixabay).

University of Idaho study examined five major sectors that could be affected by climate change

Last summer was one of the most difficult seasons on record for climate disasters in Idaho — from extreme wildfire conditions across the state to severe drought conditions, farmers were forced to cull cattle herds earlier in the season, some ended crop growing seasons early, and areas across Idaho struggled with water supply.

Those types of summers will become increasingly common in Idaho, as temperatures continue to rise across the world. 2021 was the sixth warmest year on record, marking the 45th consecutive year of warming, according to theNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Given those realities, the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research at the University of Idaho wanted to create a resource for industries across the state that would help prepare the economic sectors of Idaho for dealing with these types of conditions in the future.

The Idaho Climate-Economy Impacts Assessment was a two-year project led by Katherine Himes, director of the McClure Center.

Himes said the nonpartisan, science-based report is the first of its kind in Idaho that focused on the economy in the context of climate change. The study details the ways in which changes in temperature, precipitation and snowpack will affect five of Idaho’s major economic sectors: agriculture, energy, human health, infrastructure, land, and recreation and tourism. The report also examines data related to climate, smoke and water in Idaho and the outlook for the state. Researchers hope business leaders and policymakers will use the report to plan for a more resilient future.

“There was a lack of Idaho-specific information (on climate change), so if you don’t know the impact and opportunity, then you can’t plan for the future, and it’s hard to keep the economy strong,” Himes said. “We were really trying to pull together the data and all this information into a single website so that regardless of how you make decisions, you could use this.”

Himes and her team assembled an advisory board for the report made up of 40 people from across each region of the state from various businesses, nonprofit organizations and levels of government, including Native American tribal leaders.

“We knew that these experts and practitioners, people who manage the lands, they would know about cutting-edge research and case studies,” Himes said.

Climate change may be good for some Idaho crops, bad for others, research shows

Patrick Hatzenbuehler, an assistant professor and specialist in crop economics for the University of Idaho Extension Center in Twin Falls, led the agricultural portion of the study. One of the biggest takeaways, he said, was the diversity of climate effects for different crops. While higher amounts of carbon dioxide in the air and warmer temperatures may be beneficial for crops such as hay, it has a negative overall effect on corn.

“There’s a natural relationship between the weather and crop production, so that’s just the classic common conversation within the agricultural community — how the weather is and how the weather is expected to be, and how those changes in weather are expected to influence production from a seasonal perspective,” Hatzenbuehler said. “So based on the projections for climate and how those will adjust moving forward and given that the agriculture sector is important for Idaho’s economy, (the study is) something that I viewed as critical for people to start forming expectations.”

Storing crops may become difficult as well with changing climate conditions

Kelly Olson, who was executive director of the Idaho Barley Commission for 24 years and still participates in education efforts for agricultural producers, served on the advisory board for the study and said she found it comprehensive and hopes it serves as a wake-up call for industry professionals.

“I just felt that climate change and the potential impacts and risks for agriculture, for me, rose to the top of the risks our producers needed to be paying attention to,” Olson said.

Olson said there seems to be a general belief in agriculture circles around the country that increased carbon dioxide is good for crop yields, which is true to an extent, she said. But climate change also includes warmer temperatures and changing patterns of precipitation, which could have profound effects on crop management.

Beyond just growing the crops, Olson said she learned more from the report about how climate change could affect the storage of potatoes and onions, two of Idaho’s largest agricultural commodities.

“We expect to have access to high-quality potatoes and potato products and onions year-round, and if they don’t store well because they go into storage in poor condition — like if they’re too warm or without the right air flow — those crops are at great risk of not being able to store,” Olson said. “I hope I’m not confronted in 2050 with us importing potatoes and onions (to Idaho).”

The report could be used not only by growers, but also agricultural lenders and plant breeding specialists, who work to produce versions of crops that can handle various weather conditions.

“I don’t think we have doom and gloom ahead for Idaho agriculture,” Olson said. “But I do think the agricultural sector performance is highly dependent on how we manage and understand these changing conditions, because right now we’re highly reliant on winter snowpack and spring temperatures.”

Report shows energy use will be higher, availability could be lower across Idaho

The changes in temperature, precipitation and snowpack could also affect Idaho’s energy needs, as higher temperatures and increasing populations will fuel more demand for energy in summer and decreasing streamflow will affect hydropower generation, which is the main source of Idaho’s electrical power. The report suggested increasing renewable energy sources like solar and wind could create jobs and economic growth and mitigate some of those effects.

There are also many factors to consider with rangelands, the study shows, where drier summers may decrease available forage for cattle and feed crops may decline from reduced water availability. Rangeland managers may be able to use tools such as RangeSAT, which uses satellites to collect data to generate farm and pasture maps of vegetation, to make decisions with information about weather and available forage.

The report includes any other findings and suggestions, and Himes hopes policymakers, business leaders, trade groups and others will be able to use the report as a tool for decision-making in years to come.

“There are going to be so many creative ways to use this information, and it’s really designed to be a resource for the state,” Himes said.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.