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For the week of January 16 - 22, 2002


Snowpack slips to normal

Forecast is for change in weather

Express Staff Writer

After a booming, above average start to this winterís snowfall totals, Mother Nature slacked off, and snowpack levels are quickly slipping back to normal, or even below normal, numbers.

The heavy icing of snow Idaho received in December got the winter off to a great start, but water experts caution that much more is needed to fill the stateís reservoirs and lakes. Express Photo: Willy Cook

Winter snows checked in at close to 150 percent of average in the Big and Little Wood river basins at the end of December, but following a dry early January the snowpack had dropped to 94 percent of average by Tuesday.

In fact, only six of the 16 river basins the Idaho Department of Water Resources tracks showed numbers above 100 percent, and they are predominately in southern or western parts of the state.

Snowpacks levels across Idaho range from 80 percent of average in the upper Snake River Basin to 140 percent in the desert basins south of the Snake. But that is only one-third to two-thirds of the average April 1 depth, which is the traditional date for determining the peak snowfall from the winter.

In fact, weather patterns of late are remarkably similar to last winterís, in which near record low snowpacks kicked off a summer-long drought.

Snowfall was lacking last winter because a high-pressure system settled over the Intermountain West and routed storms away. Idahoís current high-pressure ridge may be breaking up, however, and more wet weather may be ahead.

The National Weather Service is predicting a normal winter, although an El Nino pattern may be forming, which could bring cooler temperatures and more moisture for the long-term in much of Idaho.

As Sun Valley Co. and area businesses are quick to point out, Decemberís abundant snowfall was good for holiday recreation and business, but a lot more is needed to refill Idaho's reservoirs and spin its hydroelectric turbines.

Favorable weather through the rest of the winter may fill the bill, the multi-agency Idaho Water Supply Committee said Friday.

"I guess the message is so far, so good,'' Idaho Department of Water Resources spokesman Dick Larson said. "We're in better shape than last year, but we're too early for a conclusion.''

But so far, the highest snowpacks are in the lower elevations, a few 150 percent of average locations in Bruneau and Owyhee country. Water experts prefer snow higher in the mountains so it does not immediately melt in the spring.

The drought the state endured last summer sucked the moisture from the soil across southern Idaho, and much of the spring freshet will be absorbed.

This year resembles 1989 and 1993, which followed droughts and replenished the reservoir system. But water storage remains low. By Dec. 31, the desert reservoirs of southern Idaho were nearly empty, with Salmon Falls Reservoir holding only 5 percent of capacity.

Magic Reservoir is 7 percent of its capacity, 17 percent of average and 36 percent of last yearís mark for this time in the winter.

"Weíre going to have to have at least normal precipitation from this point on through the end of the season even to get close (to filling Magic)," Big Wood Canal Co. Manager Lynn Harmon said.

Harmon, stressing that it is early to try and predict, said "Itís pretty up in the air to say what weíre going to be looking at on our reservoirs."

Priest River, Dworshak, Lucky Peak on the Boise River and Brownlee Reservoir on the Snake River reported average storage going into the new year. The eight major reservoirs in the upper Snake are one-third to one-half of normal.

The Payette system is 44 percent full, 70 percent of average; the Boise chain of dams is 34 percent full, 62 percent of normal.

The combined storage for 21 Idaho reservoirs and lakes on Jan. 1 was the third-lowest since 1958. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials said that with a normal winter, the Boise and Payette systems should fill, but the upper Snake may slightly miss the mark.

"We live in an area with a high variability,'' said Hal Anderson, Water Resources administrator. "One pesky high-pressure ridge can completely change things.''

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.