The University of Idaho on Business

Stephen R. Miller: Seminar will focus on building a fire-resilient Idaho

Associate professor, University of Idaho College of LawMarch 19, 2014 

"God gave Noah the rainbow sign," went the old spiritual, "no more water, but the fire next time."

The lyric of endurance, and watchfulness, is a ripe metaphor for today's Western cities, Boise included. Cities of the Mountain West continue to be the fastest-growing in the country. At the same time, the environments in which they are located are becoming harder places to live.

Water and fire are especially poignant threats.

Water remains a complicated issue in a state where little grows without irrigation. Farmers this winter have kept close watch on whether spring flows would fill reservoirs high enough to irrigate the state's $6 billion agriculture industry, and ground water aquifers are facing depletion by too many pumps arising with population growth.

A recent U.S. Forest Service study published in Science shows lower stream volume or "missing" mountain water supplies in Idaho. The study concluded, in part, that these changes "highlight a change of substantial magnitude with considerable ecological and economic consequences that has heretofore been ignored or dismissed."

Idaho was especially hard hit by fire in 2012, when more than 1,000 fires scorched 1.7 million acres and fire suppression cost $189 million in what was judged the state's worst fire season ever. Although there was less fire in Idaho in 2013, last summer's fire spending topped $1 billion in the West.

All the while, Idaho had the fourth-highest state percentage population growth (21 percent) between 2000 and 2010, surpassed only by the other Mountain West states of Nevada (35 percent); Arizona (24 percent); and Utah (23 percent). Last year's population data indicate the trend is continuing, as Idaho's 1 percent growth was among the nation's highest.

The combination of resource stresses and population growth doesn't mean the Treasure Valley is facing a biblical disaster any time soon. It does mean the state and the Valley need to plan for growth to minimize environmental and economic harms. Idaho is not alone. A new breed of super-storms, such as Sandy and Katrina, has roiled the eastern seaboard, and California is in the midst of its deepest drought on record. As the climate changes, so to do the challenges faced by cities in their respective environments. Prosperity will increasingly be tied to how cities have planned for the stresses placed upon them.

Those not content to simply respond to crises but to plan for growth won't want to miss the University of Idaho Law Review's April 4 symposium, "Resilient Cities: Environment | Economy | Equity," on the law school's Boise campus. The event will host some of the nation's most prominent legal scholars and practitioners who will talk about how to meet these challenges.

One panel will discuss how cities plan for and recover from disaster. Another panel will focus on the social aspects of urban resiliency. A third will focus on nontraditional means of funding resiliency projects, and a fourth will look at water planning and fire protection for resilient communities. A keynote address will be given by Ken Alex of the California Governor's Office of Planning and Research.

Those concerned with building a resilient Boise - and a resilient Idaho - won't want to miss it. For those who can't come in person, the event will be live on the Internet. Details and registration at tinyurl.com/mabfa3l.

millers@uidaho.edu

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