With over 100,000 miles of rivers and streams and more than 2,000 lakes, Idaho appears to be a water rich state. Yet the pressures facing Idaho’s freshwater systems and aquifers are daunting. The impacts of climate change, such as declining levels of snowpack and rising spring temperatures, are making our water supplies increasingly less reliable. For example, when snowpack is lower and spring months are hotter and drier, mountain snow melts off too early and leaves rivers, reservoirs and aquifers without a steady inflow of water during warmer months when it is most needed.
These fluctuating water supplies, coupled with increasing demands on Idaho’s water, make the existing system of water management unsustainable. This has significant impacts around the state, where communities, agriculture industries, recreation economies and the natural environmental all depend on a consistent supply of water.
Investing in more sustainable water use and natural climate solutions, like regenerative agriculture, can help ensure water security even in a changing climate. The Nature Conservancy’s resilient water supply strategy focuses on implementing water-conscious agriculture practices, leveraging innovative water transaction mechanisms to keep water in streams and rivers longer, and forging strategic partnerships with water user groups across the state to rebalance water use for nature and people.
Improving Water Supplies through Agricultural Practices
Approximately 85% of Idaho’s water supply is used to support agriculture across 3.4 million acres of irrigated cropland. That’s why working towards more resilient water supplies is a key component of TNC’s Healthy Soils, Clean Water initiative, a program that helps Idaho farmers build soil health and reduce water demand through regenerative farming practices. Healthy soil is better able to absorb and retain water, reducing the amount of water needed for (and thereby the cost of) growing crops, while also reducing sediment runoff and pollution in our watersheds.
By implementing more efficient water use and regenerative agriculture practices, farmers can improve the quantity and quality of water in Idaho’s rivers, lakes and aquifers. This in turn provides a more secure future for farmers and their communities and for the land itself.
Leveraging Water Transaction Mechanisms to Benefit Nature
Water management in the western United States, including Idaho, is based on a historical system of allocation called prior-appropriations that was originally intended to promote agriculture and mining as economic development for newly formed states. This framework has continued through today, but it does not necessarily take into consideration how economic and social priorities have changed over time, for example, by recognizing the value of healthy river systems or the impacts of climate change.
To address these important issues, TNC is pursuing innovative transaction strategies that help ensure that the right amount of water is available where and when it is needed for both humans and nature. Leveraging decades of expertise in land and water conservation, TNC's current projects focus on directing flows to areas that support critical wildlife and habitats in Central and Eastern Idaho.
Forging Strategic Partnerships
Effective water conservation requires the coordination of multiple users, organizations and agencies working together on a local scale to achieve watershed-wide impacts. TNC is a member of three water collaboratives across Idaho working to balance the needs of communities, industries and nature: the Wood River Water Collaborative, the Upper Snake River Collaborative and the Southern Idaho Water Quality Coalition.
Together, the stakeholders in these collaboratives focus on improving water management to achieve conservation goals while avoiding conflict between water users. Strategic partnerships like these will continue to be important to building resilient environments and communities as the availability of water where and when it is needed fluctuates in the face of climate change.
As environmental conditions change, our communities need to work together to adapt the ways we use and manage our water resources. By planning for water variability and implementing solutions that use water more efficiently and sustainably, we can build greater resiliency for our freshwater systems and the livelihoods and the lifestyles and natural environments that depend on them.