Sustainable Idaho: Drought and Water
Water: one of the world’s most invaluable resources, a necessity for biodiversity, sustaining agriculture, and urban development. However, as places like Germany and China experience dangerous floods due to abnormally large rainstorms, places like the American West endure another year of drought. For today’s episode, we invited Roger Chase, former mayor of Pocatello and vice-chair of the Idaho Water Resources Board, and Jennifer Cornell, a water quality analyst with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, to talk with us about Idaho’s drought.
The first thing to know is that the drought is severe, as reported by the Idaho Department of Water Resources, which has just measured the driest March through July since 1924. What’s more, National Geographic reports that Idaho’s drought is not a one-off occurrence but instead is part of a much longer ‘mega drought’ in the American West that has persisted for 20 years.
Now, Chase works for the Idaho Water Resource Board, which is under the Department of Water Resources which manages water quantity. We asked him about the nature of the drought overall. Chase explained that the drought is serious. According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, drought in Idaho isn’t completely out of the ordinary. Historically, drought occurs every few years. The US Drought Monitor scales drought from D0 abnormally dry to D4 exceptional drought and the US Drought Monitor updates the conditions of drought across America weekly due to changes in weather conditions. The US Drought Monitor shows as of August 5th, 100% of Idaho is currently experiencing at least D1 Moderate Drought and almost 60% of Idaho is experiencing D3 Extreme Drought or greater, which is characterized by features like dryland farms left unused, limited forage, cattle herds being cut, very low spring snowpack, and an increase in the number of fires.
Like Chase, Cornell acknowledged the severity of the drought and what that means for Idahoans, specifically agriculture. The drought’s impacts are already being felt by farmers but through innovation and modern technology, humans might be able to mitigate the effects on agriculture.
Roger Chase mentioned recharging efforts earlier on in the interview. But what does recharging actually mean in reference to Idaho’s aquifers? There are two main kinds of recharging: Natural recharging happens when rainwater and snowmelt seep through the ground into the aquifer by natural means while artificial recharging deliberately takes water, say from a river, and puts it in canals or fields to soak into the ground to increase aquifer levels. These efforts take steps to bumper water supplies during drought years but it does little to protect Idaho’s ecosystems.
Cornell spoke to the impacts of the drought to our native species. Cornell explained that the less water there is in a waterway, the faster it heats up. This decreases the amount of oxygen in the water, which can increase the morality of a host of aquatic organisms. Cornell brought up a partial solution to the drought that also restores riparian areas.
Healthy riparian systems help keep water flowing in streams and rivers year-round. While restoration efforts can help to improve habitat, a lot of environmental issues demand more attention to root causes. The mechanisms Cornell mentioned will only serve to address parts of the drought’s impact. Idaho’s drought will require cooperative action that takes into account the interests of agriculture and environmental health. The most recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change found with high confidence that climate change was making droughts and heatwaves worse. As previously mentioned, cooperative action is needed to tackle current droughts and their root causes.
Overall, this drought is worrisome because water is vital for almost everything we do. But beyond that, drought can lead to cascading issues such as wildfires. This is precisely what we’ll be discussing in next week’s episode, so tune in then. And, if you’d like to learn what you can do to conserve water, visit conserve.pocatello.us
Sources and More Information:
Idaho Firewise Link
Ways to Save Water
Idaho Department of Resources Report