The climate crisis in Idaho: Experts share environmental and health concerns

By Hanalei Potempa; The Arbiter

In Idaho, the negative impacts of the changing climate are becoming more apparent.

Climate change is not just one problem. The issue represents how the earth’s climate system is acting differently than how it has been operating for a very long time. It is a complete systemic change resulting from problems happening all over the world, and it affects each place in a different way.

“What climate change has done is it has thrown a really big wrench into our ability to predict what’s going to happen in the future given how things have looked in the past,” said Dr. Chris Torres, an environmental studies professor at Boise State.

In Idaho, changing climate conditions have caused rising concerns for consistent water sources for residential and agricultural uses. Summer temperatures are getting hotter, and wildfire seasons are lasting longer — causing more damage to the environment and leading to more days of poor air quality, in which it is dangerous to go outside.

Water Scarcity

“In the context of Idaho, water is very scarce for us, and more often than not we are really dependent on snowpack that forms in the mountains during the winter,” Torres said.

Water is scarce here in the Mountain West, and areas like the Treasure Valley rely on snowpack melt, water management systems and reservoirs for properly distributed and fully sourced water.

In Idaho, the Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for installing and overseeing the current water management system. The system is set into place to provide flood management, reserve snowpack melt in reservoirs and dispense water sources for proper use and irrigation.

In the past, the Army Corps of Engineers used centuries worth of data surrounding precipitation rates, temperatures and snowmelt in order to predict how much water will be released in late winter to create space in reservoirs.

“Climate patterns that we once thought to be fairly predictable and fairly trustworthy to plan a lot of other things are just becoming very uncertain and very variable,” Torres said.

If snowpack starts melting earlier, this raises concerns for potential flooding if reservoirs are not open. This may require a new system to be set in place for more reservoir space depending on the levels of water needed to properly sustain the agriculture industry.

“Snow is melting earlier from Idaho’s landscapes, and that really depletes what I would call our biggest storage of water on our landscape which is in all of that snowpack,” said Dr. Jen Pierce, director of the Idaho Climate Literacy Education Engagement and Research network. “That earlier snowmelt also hurts the ecosystems and species that are dependent on that water later in the season.”

Agriculture is a crucial aspect of Idaho’s culture and economy. Lack of water for irrigation caused by early melting snowpack and poor water management can threaten the current agricultural systems and cause crop shortages.

“As a global food and agriculture company, we know the impact that events like wildfires, hot, dry summers and a diminished water supply can have on our business, our state, and our way of life,” said Garrett Lofto, president and CEO of J.R. Simplot Company, in a news assessment by the McClure Center.

Wildfires, Heat Waves

This summer, Idaho experienced record-high temperatures, and these extreme conditions can create a public health hazard for those who do not have proper air conditioning services. In addition, these heat waves can cause issues for crops and livestock in the agricultural industry.

“These warm, dry summers are making it very challenging for our farmers and ranchers to manage livestock and to grow crops on our landscapes where we just don’t have enough water, especially later in the summer, to support the agricultural industry,” Pierce said.

Abnormal weather conditions are becoming more frequent, and extreme heat waves and droughts are to be expected at increasing rates.

In the Pacific Northwest, there has been an increase in hospitalizations and admissions to emergency facilities due to heat exhaustion and lung exacerbations from wildfire smoke pollutants in the air.

These warmer and drier summers create the ideal environment for more wildfires.

“In Idaho, we are experiencing increased size and severity of catastrophic wildfires,” Pierce said.

It is vital to prepare for the impacts of these fires due to their unpredictability. Although attempting to medicate the causes of these fires, Idaho must also build its resilience.

“We need to prepare our communities and our health systems to understand the risks associated with fire and how to manage those risks if there is a fire in your community,” said Jen Schneider, Boise State professor and interim associate dean of the School of Public Service.

Idaho’s forest environment has the potential to be more valued overall. Idaho’s forests help keep air and water clean, provide habitat for wildlife, reduce pollution and provide materials and jobs for rural Idaho economies.

Although the dangerous negative impacts of wildfires incite a motivation for change, these natural benefits that Idaho’s forests provide could be a positive motivator for change in an effort to protect them.

Poor Air Quality

Recently, fire seasons have become both increasingly longer and more detrimental. There is the direct impact of wildfires on the environment, but also an impact on the health and wellness of the population due to wildfire smoke.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established national ambient air quality standards to assess the level of concern and health risks to protect public health.

“We are seeing a greater number of days where it is unsafe to be outside according to EPA standards,” Schneider said.

Wildfire smoke has the ability to travel hundreds of miles, and these smoke particles that travel through the air have the potential to interact with other atmospheric chemicals and become even more toxic.

Minor symptoms caused by smoke exposure include itchy and sensitive eyes, sore throats and headaches. Monitoring the impact of smoke exposure on human health can be complex, as it is difficult to conclude just how many people are sickened or killed since it affects those with preexisting conditions more harshly.

Pierce also emphasized the importance of our health services being stocked with inhalers for those with asthma and other preexisting lung conditions. It is vital that these industries understand the threats that are coming and prepare in advance.

Public health systems are already under strain due to the pandemic, and the Pacific Northwest specifically has been experiencing more deaths caused by record breaking heat waves and dangerous levels of air pollution.

The younger and older populations are more susceptible to sickness from smoke exposure. Those with preexisting respiratory conditions are especially at risk, and the long term effects of these toxins are not completely understood.

“There have been steps taken, but we need to do a lot more,” Pierce said.

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