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Idaho Faces 'Dismal Water Supply Outlook'

by Greg Stahl, Express Staff Writer
Idaho Mountain Express - April 13, 2005

2005 could be driest water year of six-year drought

The widespread drought continuing to scorch forests and deny parched fields throughout the Northwest could cause epidemic-level problems this summer.

Dry soils mean a higher probability of wildfires. Low river levels mean lower success rates for migrating salmon and steelhead. Dry, warm temperatures make forests more susceptible to disease and attacks from endemic insects. Overall water shortages mean less to go around for farmers.

In Idaho, April 1 is considered the peak time for snow accumulation, and public and private water managers—collectively called the Idaho Water Supply Committee—are preparing to meet today in Boise to formulate a forecast for the 2005 water year. While snowpacks have improved since the committee's March meeting, the levels overall are still more than 60 percent below average in some areas.

Idaho received a near-normal month's precipitation in March, but the water supply outlook still remains gloomy. March was the first month this winter to provide near or above normal precipitation across much of the state.

"We've had a rough winter," said Ron Abramovich, a water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. "Four months of well below average precipitation has made for a dismal water supply outlook."

Unless significant spring moisture comes, drought conditions will continue. Across the state, most streamflows are forecast at a record low of 45 percent to 65 percent.

The trend across the West this winter is wetter in the south and drier in the north. In Washington, for example, snowpacks range from 26 percent to 54 percent of average. In New Mexico, snowpacks range from 134 percent to 187 percent of average.

That north-south trend also holds true in Idaho, where the Panhandle is 54 percent of average. In the southeast corner of the state, the Bear River basin is 97 percent of average. The Big Wood River basin, home to Sun Valley, is 66 percent of average.

Idaho Department of Water Resources spokesman Michael Keckler said he did not know how the meeting of the water gurus in Boise would go today, but he said, "I'm sure it's going to be continued bad news."

He pointed out that Gov. Dirk Kempthorne signed drought declarations for Butte and Camas counties on March 29. That's nearly a month earlier than in the past five years of drought. Last year, the governor signed 24 drought declarations, which give irrigators leniency in managing water.

"The way it's shaping up, it looks like this would be the driest start to a year, ever," Keckler said. "Obviously, we had some moisture come in late March and early April, but to the extent that will help will be discussed (today)."

Keckler said this year's dismal snowpacks are "like salt on the wound." He said it is close to the worst of six years of ongoing drought in Idaho, if not the worst.

In March, the water supply committee predicted "one of the worst" water years on record. The committee's findings were:

In his drought declaration for Butte and Custer counties, Kempthorne pointed out the Big Lost River is forecast to flow at 48 percent of average. Mackay Reservoir is at 74 percent of its average capacity.

The Salmon River is forecast to flow at 56 percent of average. The Rangeland Drought Task Force reported March 7 that several springs in the Challis area had dried up for the first time in recorded history.

Greg Stahl, Express Staff Writer
Idaho Faces 'Dismal Water Supply Outlook'
Idaho Mountain Express - April 13, 2005

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