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For the week of April 2 - 8, 2003

News

Central Idaho water outlook is average

Most South Idaho reservoirs wonít fill


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

With near-average snowpacks in its central and northern mountains, Idaho appears to be entering another year of drought.

Though precipitation in March was far above average in most of the state, water experts are warning that reservoir storage across the stateís central and southern regions is far below normal. Magic Reservoir, which is fed primarily by the Big Wood River, was only 19 percent of its 191,500-acre-foot capacity March 31.

"Mother Nature has not been kind to us," said Big Wood Canal Company Manager Lynn Harmon.

Harmon predicted that Magic will supply 35 to 45 days of water this summer, "maybe a little better." Last year, the reservoir supplied 73 days of water to farmers near Richfield.

In order to fill the reservoir, snowpacks would need to climb to about 150 percent of average, Harmon said, and that is unlikely. Though mountain weather is unpredictable, April 1 is generally considered to be the transition between winter and spring. Itís also the traditional start of the Idaho irrigation season.

However, Magic Reservoirís status is a gloomy look at what has been, after a near normal winter for precipitation in much of Idaho, barring the southernmost regions. According to the Idaho Department of Water Resources, the Big Wood River basin was 88 percent of average April 1. The Salmon and Payette basins were 98 percent of average, and the Clearwater River basin was 97 percent of average.

"If we forget about southern Idaho for a minute, itís a definite improvement over the last month," said Natural Resources Conservation Service Hydrologist Phil Morrisey.

Morrisey said March precipitation in the Clearwater basin was 200 percent of average, and the upper Snake River and Big Wood River basins received 10 percent more precipitation than the average March.

"Itís a lot better news than last month. Weíre getting close to that normal range," he said.

In Idaho and across most of the arid West, however, normal isnít enough.

"More people claim water rights than what an average runoff would be," Morrisey said. "So, the reservoirs are there to catch the extra. If it was just normal, normal, normal year after year, Iím not sure the reservoirs would be able to stay full."

Unfortunately, it hasnít been normal the last several years. Itís been slightly below normal each year, and some of the reservoirs, Magic included, are not even close to filling.

Does it fit the definition of a drought?

"Drought kind of creeps in slowly as a result of a couple of years of dryness," Morrisey said. "When does it start? We donít really have a good definition. The term drought means different things to different people. People who have good water rights below a good reservoir, they might not perceive a drought."

Morrisey added that other drought indicators include soil moisture and spring flows. He said reports indicate that both are suffering from several years of below-normal precipitation.

"Those are kind of the cumulative effects of the ground water and soil moisture being depleted, and that take a few years to recover," he said.

Irrigation and farming aside, Idahoís winter precipitation can help predict the severity of the summer wildfire season to come.

Federal experts are predicting that 2003 will not be as severe as last year, but still more fire-prone than an average year.

Fire forecasters said consecutive dry years coupled with early snowmelts could result in an extended fire season. They also said drought-stressed or insect-damaged vegetation will increase the potential for large, destructive wildfires.

"Nationally, it wonít be as severe as 2002, but it still will be more severe than average," said Rick Ochoa, national fire weather program manager. "As a whole, the Great Lakes area and the Northwest may have a more significant fire season than the Southwest."

The Southwest and Colorado, which had a severe fire season last year, will have an "above average season, but not as intense as last year," Ochoa said.

 

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