Slim Snowpack Bodes Ill for Farms, Fishby Jeffrey McKinnie and Bill Roberts
The Idaho Statesman, January 20, 2001
Idaho power rates could rise, too
Idahoans could face electrical rate increases in spring, and salmon may find a tougher trip downstream to the Pacific Ocean if Idaho doesn't get more snow this winter.
From the Panhandle in the north to the Snake River in the south, Idaho's snowpack is 50 to 70 percent of normal, and the state is facing its driest year since 1994. Most of Idaho's water comes from mountain snows.
Most reservoirs aren't as full as they should be for this time of year.
"We're not pushing the panic button, but we are concerned," said Bill Ondrechen, Idaho Department of Water Resources hydrologist, at a meeting with state and federal water officials Friday. "Idahoans have gotten used to having good water years. But this year, we are below normal halfway through the season."
Even though a storm dropped about 4 inches of snow in the mountains Friday, it will not be enough to make up the deficit.
"We would need above-average precipitation for the rest of the year," said Ron Abramovich, water-supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Despite below-normal snowpacks and reservoir levels, Idaho isn't facing anything as serious as it did in 1992, when reservoirs were less than 30 percent full as the irrigation season began. Farmers, who all but ran out of water by mid-summer in 1992, were hardest hit.
Farmers shouldn't expect a repeat of 1992, water officials said. It is too early to tell how the snowpack will affect recreation, such as whitewater rafting.
The low snowpacks will have a significant effect on stream flows, basins and reservoirs.
The amount of water expected to move through Brownlee Reservoir -- the principal supplier for Idaho Power Co.'s hydroelectric plants along the Snake River -- is expected to drop 16 percent this spring compared with last year.
"That means less water available for all purpose, including power production," said Dennis Lopez, Idaho Power spokesman.
About half of Idaho Power's electricity is generated by hydropower.
Lopez anticipates the company will seek a small rate increase from the Idaho Public Utilities Commission in April. But he would not say how much.
"If we don't get adequate water to use hydroelectric, then there could be a slight increase in the rates," Lopez said.
Last year's low snowpack levels triggered a slight increase in power rates for Idaho Power customers.
Water officials don't expect the low water to affect most homeowners in southwest Idaho. Most homes and utilities get their water from wells, not spring runoff.
Water officials say farmers should not see a shortage of irrigation water in the spring.
Farmers are optimistic but cautious.
Canyon County farmer Fred Sarceda will likely wait before deciding whether to do normal planting or cut back. Sarceda grows feed corn and other crops.
"We usually get heavy snow in the next three months," Sarceda said. "I think in another month or so I'll be able to tell, and then I'll make a decision."
Salmon may be severely affected by a reduced snowpack.
The fish need heavy water flow to wash them downstream in mid-summer and good-sized flows for the trip upstream in fall.
"It is going to be marginal to get us through the summer," said Marti Bridges, conservation director for Idaho Rivers United.
For the past several years, salmon have been washed downstream relying on a combination of water from the Bureau of Reclamation and privately purchased water.
If water becomes scarce, fewer farmers may be willing to sell their water to ease the trip for fish.
"That will be a flashpoint issue," Bridges said. "It could be a kind of train wreck that might occur between the needs of salmon and farmers."
Officials at the National Weather Service in Boise said the regional forecast for the next three months is uncertain -- ranging from below- to above-normal precipitation
Snow and rain could have a slight impact in either direction for fire officials, who are still recuperating from one of the worst fire seasons in history.
"A light snowpack means there will be much smaller fuels," said Randy Eardley of the federal Bureau of Land Management. "But it would also tend to dry out the larger fuels."
But like the water managers, Eardley wasn't ready to make any predictions.
"We might have light snowpacks, but it could rain all spring and summer," he said. "It's just too early to speculate."
Abramovich is waiting to see what happens in the next few months.
"It's happened in the past, and we've been able to get close to normal levels," he said. "We have to wait until April 1 when the packs have basically reached their peaks."
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