Ada County recorded less smog in 2009 than in recent years. But the valley would already be in violation of federal standards had the Bush administration adopted ozone limits recommended by a panel of scientists and health experts in 2008.
And while another low smog year in 2010 could buy the region some time, recent trends suggest the stricter standard being adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency under Lisa P. Jackson will plunge Southwest Idaho into nonattainment.
"It is difficult to convince a community there's a problem unless it kind of hits you in the face a little bit," said Krishna Viswanathan, a top environmental scientist with the EPA's Region 10, based in Seattle.
The EPA is expected to lower the ozone standard from 75 parts per billion, as set during the later years of the Bush EPA, to something between 60 and 70 ppb, as the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee recommended in 2008. The public will be able to comment on the new level before it goes into effect by August.
An EPA chart [pdf] shows Ada County in violation of a 65 ppb standard by 2020, along with hundreds of other communities.
Viswanathan said that the Treasure Valley has been working proactively to curb smog, but that other communities are working harder to stave off nonattainment, which comes with a slew of federally imposed timelines and expensive consequences.
"If a community can take charge of this and say 'we're going to be in the driver's seat,' it's a win win," Viswanathan said, citing the example of the Austin, Tex., area, which has united a broad coalition of government and business interests to create incentives to combat summertime smog and other pollutants.
The Treasure Valley Air Quality Council, created by the Legislature and appointed by the governor in 2005 "to protect, preserve and, where necessary, improve the quality of the air in the Treasure Valley while accommodating private, public and commercial interests," represents a similar effort here, though it has not garnered the same kind of regional cooperation reported in Austin.
Nor has it garnered any funding.
"We have limited amount of impetus without money," said Dale Stephenson, co-chairman of the council and a professor of environmental and occupational health at Boise State.
The council recently lost its Web site because of a lack of funding, but it still meets monthly and is revising the 2007 Treasure Valley Air Quality Plan and watching the Legislature for any bills that might affect air quality, particularly bills being pushed by Canyon County.
Canyon County has resisted testing auto emissions for years. But by this summer, based in part on a report from the council and a mandate by the Legislature, Canyon County is supposed to adopt an emissions testing program designed by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
Bruce Louks, air quality modeling and monitoring manager at the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said there are several other efforts under way to control ozone. Many gas stations have installed vapor controls and the valley has some nascent carpooling, ride sharing and public transit efforts.
"We're looking at a number of emission reduction strategies," Louks said.
The three-year average ozone high for the Treasure Valley, called the design value, dropped from 75 to 72 ppb last year. If this year's high (which is technically the fourth highest eight-hour average for the summer at the worst of two monitoring stations in Ada County) is 73 ppb or higher, we would be in violation of a 70 ppb standard.
And the EPA could set the new level even lower.
"The lower it gets, obviously, the worse the scenario gets," Louks said.
Kootenai County is the only other area monitored in Idaho and it has registered lower ozone levels than the Treasure Valley in recent year.
There are no monitoring sites in Canyon County, and though it's not required and DEQ can't afford it, Louks said they'd like to have a site there eventually.
While the Treasure Valley Air Quality Council has little ability to do public outreach, a nonprofit called the Treasure Valley Partnership, comprised of most of the valley's mayors and commissioners, has taken upon itself to blog and tweet about air quality.
Bill Larsen, director of the partnership, said there have been many sessions about vehicle emission testing in recent years, but that everyone agrees with the scientific information on ozone and particulates presented on the treasurethevalleysair.com or @treasurevallair on Twitter, though the updates are a few months old now.
Larsen said new information on winter air pollution, which is exacerbated by inversions, will be posted soon.
The EPA will also beef up a secondary standard for ozone, aimed at protecting wildlife, vegetation and crops. Recent studies point to negative effects of ozone on plant and animal life, as well as crop yields. Four Idaho counties, including Ada and Canyon, would likely violate a lower secondary standard by 2020, according to the EPA.