Winter in Idaho is many things: bracing, frustrating, stunningly beautiful, exhilarating, inversion-stricken, way too long or way too short. No matter how the season measures up, it remains one thing: the climatic engine that drives everything else for the rest of the year.
In the West, water rules all, and in a place like Idaho, where roughly 80 percent of the annual precipitation comes in the form of snow, the entire economy--even the lifestyle--is tied in some way to winter. From irrigating crops to moving water down the rivers for recreation, and from flood management to supporting the water needs of a growing population (and keeping things green enough that the whole area doesn't burst into flames every summer), everything depends on winter snows and the spring runoff they create.
But what if Idaho winters went the way of the dodo? What if continued climate changes mean that winters heat up and seasonal snows become a memory told in tales that start with the phrase, "When I was a kid..."?
The Bad News
While there are still some skeptics out there, the majority of scientists now agree that the world is experiencing climate change and that its effects vary by location. In Idaho, forecasting models predict that winters will continue to get warmer and, because of that, most of the precipitation in the Treasure Valley will come in the form of rain, with snows limited to higher and higher elevations.
This also means that hot, dry summers will likely continue to be the norm, but without winter snows and spring runoff, the strategy for coping with those conditions will have to change.
"Everything here ties back to water and our ability to keep it," said Scott Lowe, associate professor in the Department of Economics at Boise State University and director of the Environmental Studies Program.
"This nexus of water, energy, agriculture ... we have an understanding of it, but people in the Treasure Valley don't realize to what extent it's intertwined," Lowe said.
Since people first settled in the valley, they created a system based on winter snow: Snow piles up in the high country throughout the winter, acting like a frozen reservoir; spring rains prep the soil by saturating it, so that as the snows begin to melt, less will be absorbed and more will make it to the system of reservoirs built along the major river systems. The reservoirs then capture as much of that runoff as possible and water managers release it at specific times to support both wildlife and irrigation throughout the summer, as well as mitigate flooding issues, all while trying to hold as much in reserve as possible.
But should rain replace snow as the dominant form of precipitation, that system would have to change.
"The biggest thing out West, and especially the Intermountain West--the reason we can farm out here and we have agriculture--is that we have mountains that accumulate snow over the winter," said Troy Lindquist, service hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Boise. "If we did not get that snowpack, it would be a huge impact on agriculture and water supply in general."
Typically, the Boise area receives about 14 inches of precipitation a year, and the vast majority of that is received in the winter. If there weren't the cold temperatures to hold it in the mountains, water managers would have to find a way to better capture rain runoff.
While the West is already dotted with dams, Lowe said many more may be required to take full advantage of a rain-based system--a plan that introduces a host of other serious and, in some cases, controversial issues.
Water managers would also have to adapt their approach to handling stored water to try to make it last through as much of the long, dry summer as possible.
"It would be a hit for agriculture," Lowe said. "We wouldn't have [water] in the late dry season. [That] relies on runoff."
He also cautions that with less water from runoff, it could pass more demand to groundwater--a supply that is already the center of controversy as the population in the Treasure Valley continues to grow and new developments are built.
"There are a lot of concerns about large urban developments and the effects on groundwater in the Treasure Valley," Lowe said.
Rainier winters could also have an effect on something Boise officials are ready to tout at any time: livability.
While warmer temperatures could mean that people would be able to spend more time outside, rain could seriously dampen traditional outdoor winter recreation opportunities, as well as push more people inside during particularly soggy periods.
But it's not just play time that will change, so too will the economy, largely because of agriculture.
"In the Treasure Valley, it's significant and affects a lot of other industries," Lowe said. "When you talk about agriculture, you think about someone in the field, [but] the money they bring in trickles through the larger economy."
Last year, the agriculture industry brought in about $7.8 billion in cash receipts, making Idaho the third-largest agricultural economy in the West, behind California and Washington, according to Garth Taylor, an economist at the University of Idaho Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology.
The growth rate has been nothing short of impressive, Taylor said, adding that 10 years ago, the agricultural industry wasn't half of what it is now and that if we continue at the rate we're going, the ag industry in Idaho will double approximately every 10 years.
According to studies Taylor co-authored, in 2011 agribusiness was the state's largest industry, ranked by sales, pumping about $19 billion (18 percent of total economic output) into the state and supplying more than 100,000 jobs.
Dairy is leading the charge, reporting $2.54 billion in cash receipts in 2011, making Idaho the nation's third-largest dairy producing state. Dairy production ripples through the state's economy, affecting hay and corn prices among other things, as well as creating agriculture-based industries.
Taylor said the lack of snowpack would have a major effect on agribusiness, especially in places like the Magic Valley.
In addition to impacting agriculture, the changes would be seen in other areas of life, including more wildfires and lower flow rates in rivers, which could raise the temperature of the water and make it harder for fish to survive.
"There are a lot of tag-along related effects," Lowe said.
He added that dam managers would have to alter the release of water to deal with the flow rates, which could affect Idaho Power's ability to create hydroelectric power when the demand is greatest.
"Everything here ties back to water and our ability to keep it," Lowe said.
The Good News
As dire as that sounds, climate change isn't without its positives. Warmer, rainier winters could give Idaho a longer growing season, albeit with a few tweaks to the status quo.
For instance, Idaho's signature potato crop might not be as common, while we could see a whole lot more drought-resistant crops like alfalfa taking their place--or even more exotic crops like pomegranates or almonds.
"It's a counterintuitive result," Lowe said. "Warmer and longer growing seasons actually benefit agriculture. Farmers plant crops earlier and don't have to worry about early rains."
He added that some areas made difficult for farming because of early frosts have the potential to produce much more.
The greatest factor in benefiting from warmer winters comes down to farmers' ability to adapt to the situation at hand.
"Climate isn't weather," Lowe said. "Irrigators in the Treasure Valley have the ability to adapt, to grow different crops. ... In Idaho, we don't have mono-cropping like elsewhere. We have more flexibility."
So while crops like potatoes and onions are heavily dependent on irrigation at specific times in their growth cycles, they can be replaced by crops that can go longer without irrigation or do better during different times of the year.
"Agriculture is one of the early indicators," Lowe said. "It always has been that if anyone knows what's going on with weather and its effects, it's agriculture."
It's also something that all three state universities are studying thanks to National Science Foundation grants to look at the impact of climate change and economics, Lowe said.
Dealing with changing conditions is nothing new in the West, and Taylor is quick to point out that year to year, there is more variation in the weather than what is predicted to occur through long-term climate change.
In fact, Taylor looked into the possible effects on irrigation from climate change in a recently published study conducted last year along with Russ Qualls, state climatologist at the U of I.
The pair ran climate change scenarios looking at snowpack and modeled the runoff for various drainage systems, including the Snake River Plain, while taking prior water appropriations into account.
Taylor said that in what he called the most "draconian" scenarios that have been forecasted for climate change, only five irrigation districts in the Snake River Plain would be shorted by more than 15 percent--which is less that the irrigation shortage faced by area residents this year.
Still, he cautioned that the existing system of dams was not designed to capture early runoff and that a lot of early runoff will go down the rivers rather than being held in reservoirs.
He also added that if temperatures warm, there will be increasing demand for summer irrigation water as well, both by residential and agricultural customers.
Regardless of who is using the water, everyone will have to change their ways.
"[We'll need to] plan and adjust accordingly," said Ron Abramovich, water supply specialist with the National Resource Conservation Service Snow Survey. "A lot is based on spring snow melt scenarios. If we don't get much [precipitation] in fall or winter, we have to plan."
"We will watch and monitor Mother Nature to try to predict what will happen," he said.
It's easy to fall down the rabbit hole of long-term "what ifs," but when it comes down to it, most of us are more concerned with what will happen in the coming winter--especially when coming off of a year with bad snowpack and a hot summer.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature isn't cooperating very much.
"In a normal year, surface temps are near normal and it doesn't give much of a clue [to the coming winter]. That's what we're in this year," said Jay Breidenbach, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
That means that neither a warm, dry El Nino pattern, nor a cool, wet La Nina pattern is setting up, which means it will be a wait-and-see season.
"We will have some winter this year," Breidenbach said with a laugh.
Abramovich will be waiting and watching to see how winter shapes up, measuring the snowpack at 78 automated SNOTEL sites and 100 manually measured sites across the state.
Scientists have been using snowpack data to predict spring runoff and the impending water year since the first measuring site was established in Yellowstone National Park in 1915, although the majority of the measuring locations were installed in the 1950s and 1960s. Data gathered also helps researchers see larger patterns across the West.
Abramovich pointed to the dry pattern that dominated Idaho from 2000 into 2007, which led to some explosive fire seasons. But starting in 2007, the pattern switched to a cool, wet one, leading to heavy snow years. While the winter of 2012-2013 wasn't a record-breaker, it doesn't determine what will happen this year.
One trend researchers have seen is that while variations are normal, in recent years, those variations are greater year-to-year than they were several decades ago.
"In the '60s, weather was more normal," Abramovich said. "Now you can't depend on the spring rains."
With no clear weather pattern emerging, he is still hopeful for snow this winter.
"Hopefully by the end of snow season ... we will record a normal amount of precipitation," Abramovich said. "Farmers and irrigators are concerned about next year."
It's likely they'll also be concerned about the years to come, as well, as a new normal for winter emerges.
"The sense of place we have in Boise--this is the City of Trees, it's a robust urban watershed--it's one of those things we associate with Boise being Boise," Lowe said. "If the flows in the river changes or the trees and types of trees change, it changes the image of Boise.
"It's the lifeblood of who and what we are in the Treasure Valley."