Major water shortages predicted
Legislators ‘warm’ to idea of climate
By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer
Idahoans must brace for warmer
temperatures, less snow and longer summer seasons. In fact, it’s something
they’ve already been gradually doing as the earth has been warming and the
climate has been changing throughout the last century.
The West, without question, is moving into
a transitional period when precipitation will dwindle and snow will melt
earlier, said Phillip Mote, a researcher with Climate Impacts Group from the
University of Washington. What that means is management of water in Idaho and
throughout the West has to change.
What’s more, Mote said the trend toward
warmer, drier weather is not a slap from Mother Nature. The majority of
scientists working on the issue agree that the warming trend is human-caused, he
During the next 50 years, global
temperatures could rise 7 degrees, Mote said.
"An increasing body of observations gives
a collective picture of a warming world and other changes in the climate
system," Mote said. "There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming
observed in the last 50 years is attributable to human activities."
Mote spoke Thursday, June 3, to the Idaho
Legislature’s Expanded Natural Resources Interim Committee at a daylong meeting
held at Boise City Hall. The House and Senate committee is charged with looking
for solutions to Idaho’s complex water conundrums.
Above all, Mote stressed three take-home
First, humans are changing the global
climate, and the changes will become increasingly evident.
Second, warming will decrease snowpacks
and exacerbate summer water shortages. "Some of these changes are already
becoming apparent in Idaho," Mote said.
Third, further global warming will create
a climate-driven depletion of the Snake River Plain Aquifer.
"This may well be what we’re in, some
combination of a 100-year drought and global warming," Mote said. "We know it
means warmer, but we don’t know what else."
Mote said carbon dioxide in the earth’s
atmosphere is up 32 percent in the last 150 years and is now higher than at any
time in the last 23 million years. Methane, too, has increased dramatically,
particularly since the turn of the 20th century. Since 1750, methane has
increased more than 150 percent.
A graph of the global average temperature
coincides almost perfectly with graphs of methane and carbon dioxide production.
Around the Industrial Revolution in the 1880s, all three graphs spike skyward.
"This is a huge issue that is going to
have to be dealt with eventually," Mote said. "Some of these changes are already
occurring. These projections of future climate that show that there is less snow
and less water in the summer is what’s already been happening."
To help illustrate the point, Mote showed
a slide depicting the South Cascade Glacier in 1928 and again in 2000. In the
more recent photo, the glacier is clearly half the size it was 72 years earlier.
And that’s only the beginning of the melt, he said.
"Throughout the west, spring snow runoff
has been coming earlier in recent years, typically 10 to 40 days with the
biggest changes in areas at lower elevations. Most of the West has seen
increases in March flows, just as predicted in the models. June flows have been
dropping, and in Idaho, that’s in the 10 to 30 percent range.
"It isn’t 10 to 40 years in the future
that we’ll notice it. We’re already noticing it. It is pretty well agreed that
there is warming, and there will be continued warming."
Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, said he
believes the presentation was a quantum leap for members of the Idaho
"For many of these people to take the time
to sit through a serious presentation on climate change—some of them don’t
believe in it. They think it’s bad science," Stennett said.
Stennett said the committee’s effort was
"a good beginning."
"I’ve never really bought on big to the
whole global warming theory," said Sen. Dean Cameron, R- Rupert. "But I was
impressed by the way he laid out the evidence."
Rep. Tim Ridinger, R-Shoshone, said the
presentation was informative, but daunting.
"After we digest it, we’re probably going
to have to have some of these people come back," he said. But the gist of the
problem is clear, he said.
"Somehow, we’re going to have to come up
with some additional storage to have the water in years when we need it," he
said. "We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to re-shape it to fit
But Mote noted that other predictions
include a reduction in the amount of snow in lower elevations, which could make
it harder to store water in reservoirs and reduce the natural recharge of the
expansive Snake River Plain Aquifer that provides water for much of southern
Ron Abramovich, a water supply specialist
with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, said that even if the
same amount of precipitation fell as rain instead of snow, it would move through
the watersheds early in the year and before the reservoirs are ready to begin
"You’d have to more closely watch the
management of reservoirs," said Abramovich, who made the comment in a separate
interview with The Associated Press.
Mote said allowing more flexibility in
spring river management could aid Idaho and other Northwest states in addressing
the changing snowfall and rain patterns.
"We’d have less concern for flood control
and more concern on keeping reservoirs full in the summer," he said.
Mote also said the average temperature
increase would affect salmon, which rely on snowpack to provide water for their
journey to the Ocean.
In some streams, flooding will increase,
scouring eggs from their streambeds at a critical time, Mote said. In other
places, warmer water temperatures and lower stream levels will hurt fish in the
"There will be some stocks of salmon that
will have a difficult time with global warming," Mote said.
(The Associated Press contributed to