Water Levels Still Lagby Times-News & Associated Press
Times-News, January 4, 2005
... Recent snow hasn't raised levels to averages
JEROME -- These days Larry Pennington works for the Northside Canal Co. full time while he rents out his farm.
Through his work Pennington has seen how farmers compensate when they're running short on water because of more than a half decade of drought.
One strategy is to change the nozzles on their pivots in order to ratchet down the amount of water going on fields. They change the crops they grow, sometimes switching from water-loving spuds to grain. They let portions of some fields go dry. And they reduce the amount of time they let their hay and corn grow so they don't use as much water, Pennington said.
Pennington also experienced firsthand on his own farm -- which has Northside Canal Co. shares -- another water-saving technique.
"My renter transferred the water off my farm to another," Pennington said. "He needed it for a high-use crop of potatoes."
But though Northside Canal Co. farmers were as stingy with their water as Pennington can remember, the company ended the season with hardly any carryover for the 2005 irrigation season. Right now there's only enough water on hand to last the district's farmers three days. That's an all-time low for the company. A year ago those same farmers had enough water stored for almost 50 days.
There's been some snow and rain lately, which makes Pennington hopeful.
"Things were looking a lot bleaker a month ago," he said.
But still, state and federal officials say recent snow isn't enough to cut the deficit.
In the mountains of the Snake River Basin, which supplies the Northside Canal Co. along with most southern Idaho irrigators, the snowpack was just 82 percent of the average since 1974. Southwest Idaho's Owyhee Basin had just 66 percent on Monday and the Idaho Panhandle was at 60 percent.
About a quarter of Idaho's $40.4 billion economy comes from agriculture and tourism, so farmers and resort officials across the state follow weather with keen interest.
And while recent snows have helped ski areas such as Sun Valley and Tamarack Resort in central Idaho reduce their reliance on snow-making machines, farmers and ranchers are still scanning the skies -- and federal precipitation Web sites -- for signs of what the next growing and grazing seasons will bring.
The weather has had consequences for some companies: Idaho Power's parent company, Idacorp, had its credit rating put on notice for a possible downgrade in June, in part because drought and lower water levels behind its dams could boost its operating costs.
El Nino, a weak, warm ocean current off the coast of South America that ordinarily appears around Christmas and can last more than a month, is playing a dominant role in state weather. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says residents can expect above-average temperatures and below-average moisture from Bonners Ferry at the northern tip of the Panhandle to Preston at Idaho's southeast extreme until at least April.
"I would be concerned, especially considering we've had drought for six, and some areas seven, years," said Jay Breidenbach, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Boise. "It takes several years of normal to above normal precipitation, most of that falling as snow in the mountains, to erase the drought. This is not a good start."
Out of 19 Idaho regions measured by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service, only three measured above 100 percent of the normal snowpack: the Medicine Lodge, Beaver and Camas basins, the Bear River Basin and the Oakley Basin.
Almost two-thirds are below 90 percent of average.
Still, state and federal weather officials left room for optimism. The four months that are traditionally Idaho's wettest still lie ahead.
What's more, snow is forecast in the southeast corner of the state for the rest of the week, and more storms are expected to arrive across the breadth of western Idaho by Thursday.
In the last three days, Sun Valley has received more than 2 feet of new snow.
"Right now, there's a lot of moisture off the west coast, and it seems to be going to California and the Sierra Nevada," said Lyle Swank, a water engineer with the Idaho Department of Water Resources. The storms have deposited up to 8 feet at resorts near Lake Tahoe, Calif.
"A little change in that might bring some moisture here," he said.
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