Friday, June 10, 2005

Wet spring boon to recreation

Record precipitation improves Idaho water outlook

Express Staff Writer

Recreation and water in Idaho are closely connected. When the water comes up, the people come out to play?people like Haily resident Lori Burks, who enjoys the state's whitewater playgrounds. Photo by Willy Cook

When the water comes up in Idaho, the people come out to play.

Paddlers launch on the state's abundant whitewater rivers, and water skiers flock to rapidly filling reservoirs.

Captains of wind-powered vessels revel in the abundance of navigable channels, and anglers head for spring-fed creeks while they wait for the muddy runoff of rivers to subside.

"It's awesome for sailing," said Eastside Magic Resort Owner Nate Norris, remembering his spring outings on Magic Reservoir, which, to the surprise of many, is nearly bank full for the first time in six years.

Anyone gazing into a crystal ball two months ago probably would not have foreseen the spring that has come to pass. Idahoans who predictably anticipated woeful runoff were surprised when the skies wept and the rivers let loose their high-water roars. In many parts of Central Idaho, rain in May set records.

Norris said he had become used to the barren sands stringing the periphery of the reservoir.

"It's like we're missing the beach now, but it's also nice to have the reservoir full," he said.

Following a winter with extremely marginal snowfall and a spring with record rainfall, Magic is at 76 percent of its 191,500 acre foot capacity. That's not bad for a year when hydrologists were forecasting in March that runoff would be 20 percent of average.

And the reservoir is continuing to fill ever so slightly.

"It has slowed off on how it's coming up," Norris said. "It was coming up 2 to 3 feet a day, but now it's coming up 2 to 3 inches a day."

Magic Reservoir is managed by the Shoshone-based Big Wood Canal Co., which dolls out water to irrigate farmland on the upper Snake River Plain. In a typical year, reservoir gates are opened in early May to help green the great irrigated desert below. This year, while cool temperatures and steady rains continued, the gates stayed closed. They were finally opened on June 1.

"That happened all across Southern Idaho," said Natural Resources Conservation Service Hydrologist Ron Abramovich. "What I've heard is that it's one of the latest demands for irrigation water ever. So that allowed many of the reservoirs to continue storing water and even to fill."

Abramovich said spring precipitation continues to be above average. June rains already exceed the monthly average. In May, one site in the headwaters of the Little Wood River received nearly as much rain in one day as it usually does in the whole month.

"We had a good month in May, but it doesn't change the fact that we have no snow," Abromovich said. "Drought conditions still persist, due to the cumulative effects of the well below average snowpacks we've received over the past few years."

Another unmistakable aspect of the wet spring are the chilly temperatures. Temperatures throughout Central Idaho have consistently been about 10 degrees Fahrenheit below normal, Abromovich said.

As global warming continues to take hold of regional weather patterns, one of the things that is predicted to happen is precipitation will increasingly fall as rain rather than snow.

"We're actually seeing increased flows in March and, likewise, decreased volume flows in July and even August," Abramovich said. "It's because of the snow coming off earlier and falling as rain."

The other phenomenon of late is that the weather appears more volatile. This year provides an excellent example, Abramovich said. The winter was extremely dry, and the spring was extremely wet.

If the trend continues, it may mean people will have to adjust to new weather patterns to get the most out of Mother Nature's water supplies.

"We've done some studies that weather was more stable previously, so it was easier to predict stream flows," he said. "With this new uncertainty, it makes it more important to manage water appropriately and predict it property."

More than Idaho farmers are depending on it. Tourism and recreation at Magic Reservoir and at rivers, reservoirs and lakes throughout the state are affected.

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