Idaho's Water Levels Still Running Lowby John Miller, Associated Press
Idaho Statesman, January 4, 2005
State, federal officials say recent snow hasn't cut deficit
Idaho has been running in the red on its water bank account for six years, and state and federal officials say recent snow isn't enough to cut the deficit.
In the mountains of the Snake River Basin, which supplies most of Idaho's irrigated farmland, 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.
"What I do is I'll plant more wheat, which sometimes is not quite as productive a crop as far as return but takes less water," said Tracy Walton, who grows wheat, corn, beans and hay on more than 700 acres near Emmett.
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 in 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."
Since Idaho's drought began in 1999, precipitation levels at the Pocatello Airport measuring station have run a deficit of more than 26 inches. The airport station would have to get about 38 inches of precipitation in a single season to erase that deficit.
There's little chance of that. The average is just 12 inches a year, and Pocatello fell an inch short of that in 2004.
Still, state and federal weather officials — and farmers like Walton in Emmett — left room for optimism. The four months that are traditionally Idaho's wettest still lie ahead.
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