Rocky Barker: Idaho should promote its place as a climate Noah’s Ark

I tip my glass to Mother Earth Brew Co., which announced this week it plans to open a brewhouse in Nampa by the middle of 2016.

I can’t wait to taste its flagship beer, Cali Creamin’ Vanilla Cream Ale. The jobs it will bring to the Valley also will be great for the state’s economy.

The company’s decision is a reminder of the economic potential Idaho has due to the rapid climate change that is affecting the globe in very different ways. Just as biologists have found that Idaho’s high-elevation streams may be like Noah’s Ark for bull trout and cutthroat in the face of warming, Idaho may offer refuge for business and industry.

California’s drought is the worst in 500 years. Even 3,000-year-old great sequoias are suffering. As are farmers, golf courses, homeowners and nearly everything and everyone in the state.

One of the online commenters on Michael Deeds story Wednesday about Mother Earth suggested the company is coming here because of California’s water shortage.

Deeds asked Mother Earth’s brand guru Kevin Hopkins, who told him current water supply was not a primary consideration for building the Nampa brew room and corporate offices.

“It’s more of an issue of future water availability and planning,” Hopkins said. “In that case, Idaho absolutely shows a positive spin on that.”

Breweries aren’t big water users, and certainly not compared to agriculture. In California, growing a single almond takes a gallon of water. And there are lots and lots of almond trees.

A glass of beer takes from two to 20 gallons to make. All 115 breweries in San Diego County use less than half of 1 percent of all the water used there, Hopkins said.

California’s real problem is that its water legal structure is a mess. There really isn’t an efficient system for transferring water rights from one use to another.

In the free world, we call these markets. Idaho has a water-transfer market, thanks to the adjudication process that began in the 1980s and was completed in 2014. Companies that come to the state and want to do business here can buy or lease the water they need.

I don’t want to suggest our water is unlimited. Farmers and other groundwater users face cutbacks. But instead of having to dry up thousands of acres of land, they are using innovation to reduce water demand — such as moving from high-water crops such as potatoes and corn to grains.

The scarcer the water, the higher the price, the more innovation we see. That’s what Jamie Workman, founder of SmartMarkets in California, is doing for brewers, vineyards and golf courses. Neighbors are sharing the water they conserve with others through his company, AquaShares.

But that only goes so far. Semiconductor manufacturers, like Micron Technology, need lots of extremely pure water. Milwaukee and other Great Lakes cities are calling themselves the “Fresh Coast.” They have developed the Global Water Center as a research center that takes advantage of its ample water supply. They want to attract California semiconductor manufacturers. Maybe even its water bottlers.

In Boise, we have the University of Idaho’s Water Center. Perhaps we should rename it the Western Water Center and, through corporate and state partnerships, support and grow its water-conservation research that can build on our already robust entrepreneurial community in this area.

But Idaho’s opportunity to be an economic Noah’s Ark during climate change is not limited to water. We have the potential to become a major energy producer if we can unleash the power of markets.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s new carbon-emission rules for power plants can be easily met by Idaho, because of the state’s low-carbon footprint and high use of hydroelectric, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy sources.

The challenge for Idaho electric customers is that its utilities also depend on power produced by coal from Montana, Wyoming, Nevada and Utah. These states and Idaho are struggling to identify how a market can be created that would efficiently reduce the costs for everyone.

Idaho should see this process as an opportunity, not a burden. Imagine if Idaho could earn valuable credits by producing more low-carbon power than its utilities can use right now. The Idaho National Laboratory could build the modular nuclear pilot plant it’s been trying to attract to Idaho and earn carbon credits for the state. Wind and solar developers could take advantage of the many sites still available in Idaho and bring valuable economic activity to rural communities while creating low- or no-pollution energy for sale to the world.

Yes, climate change means our rivers are getting warmer, our mountains are holding less snow and we are seeing longer fire seasons and hotter summers. But it also has lengthened our growing season and made it possible for Idaho to produce great red wine it couldn’t 30 years ago.

So here’s to Mother Earth Brew Co., the latest Idaho company. I’m ready for the next round.