Friday, April 7, 2006

Storms flood Fairfield, raise concerns elsewhere

Magic Reservoir could fill for first time since 2000

Express Staff Writer

Strong electrical storms light up the skies above Hailey Tuesday night. Photo by Mark Moulton

Flooding closed schools in Fairfield, a tornado touched down northwest of Twin Falls in Hagerman, lightning and heavy rain blasted the Wood River Valley, and 17 inches of snow buried the summit of Bald Mountain.

Big, wet storms have routinely pummeled south-central Idaho this season, but the flooding left in the wake of turbulent weather systems Tuesday and Wednesday may have been a harbinger of much larger events this spring and summer.

With snow levels rising above 8,000 feet on Wednesday, rain saturated much of the area's existing snowpack and caused flooding in parts of southern Idaho, including the city of Fairfield, in Camas County.

"We got water coming out of the hills faster than we can handle it, and the roads are pretty flooded," said Ted Strickler, of the Camas County Road and Bridge Department. "We're so flat it just kind of ponds up in the snow."

Strickler said deep snowdrifts have clogged storm channels, preventing the rapid runoff from exiting the town at the base of the Soldier Mountains. Schools in Camas County were closed Thursday and today, April 7.

"We're just out doing what we can, letting it go through and preparing behind it," Strickler said.

Camas Creek, which runs parallel to much of U.S. Highway 20 near Fairfield, was roaring at 2,500 cubic feet per second near the entrance to Magic Reservoir on Thursday, according to Lynn Harmon, general manager of the Big Wood Canal Company.

That's a 2,000 cfs jump from 500 last week.

However, the Big and Little Wood rivers were both running below flood stage on Thursday.

Harmon said he's releasing water from Magic Reservoir—which is poised to be full this spring and summer for the first time since 2000—at a rate of 1,200 cfs.

"That's the maximum amount we can release through the dam at this point," Harmon said. "One of the concerns is that at present in-fill rates, (the water) could reach the spillway in three or four days. And when it hits the spillway, we don't have control over downstream flood issues."

Magic Reservoir can hold 190,000 acre-feet of water. Last year, heavy spring rains compensated for a meager snowpack and filled the reservoir up to 150,000-acre feet.

An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover a one-acre area with one foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons.

Harmon said he expects this year's runoff to be the biggest since 1983, which was one of the snowiest winters on record in Idaho.

On Thursday, the snowpack in the Big Wood Basin was 146 percent of average. The Galena Summit SnoTel—short for snow telemetry—site 30 miles north of Ketchum was reporting a settled snow depth of 112 inches on Thursday. The snow-water equivalent was a staggering 35 inches.

"There will undoubtedly be some flooding up in the Wood River Valley," Harmon said. "It will be an interesting year, different than it's been in a long time.

"The last really high water year was 1983, and it flooded quite extensively. This is shaping up for that kind of possibility."

Blaine County has already posted emergency flood situation information on its Web site,, and will be releasing a letter to local media outlets next week to inform the public how to prepare for potential flooding.

Local landscaping companies are also preparing for the worst.

"We've had a couple strategy meetings, and we've already bought a bunch of sandbags," said Art Hall, a manager of Big Wood Landscape, in Ketchum.

Sherrie Hebert, a hyrdologist with the National Weather Service in Pocatello, said the severity of the flooding will depend entirely on Mother Nature.

"The ideal situation will be a cool spring, where the snow melts off slowly and the water works its way into the soil and the ground," Hebert said.

If the temperature rises quickly and dramatically, "that could cause rapid runoff and flooding," she added.

"The worst case scenario is a rapid warm-up and rain on top of that," Hebert said. "That's when the real issues start."

While the abundance of moisture is causing some headaches, it's also providing much needed relief to the drought that has dogged the region for the past seven years.

"Hopefully this will provide some good carryover in the reservoir in future years," Harmon said.

Nate Norris, owner of the East Side Magic bar and restaurant at Magic Reservoir, said it will be "awesome" to have the reservoir full again.

"Boaters will be able to go to all of the different coves and go water skiing, sailing and cliff diving," he said.

Unsettled weather is expected to continue through the middle part of next week, according to the Weather Service.

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