Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Spring storms have helped water supply

Summer outlook still guarded

Express Staff Writer

A recent spate of storms has increased the snowpack in the Big Wood Basin, but not enough to assuage concerns about this summer's water supply.

Snowpack in the basin, which includes the Wood River Valley, is up to 72 percent of average, a significant increase from the 63 percent calculated at the beginning of March.

"Late March storms brought a glimmer of hope to Idaho's water supply outlook," stated the Idaho Water Supply Outlook Report, released on April 1 by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. "If it weren't for the March precipitation, many more record low April 1 snow levels would have been set."

The report notes that the storms, which combined to drop more than 2 feet of snow in most of Idaho's mountain ranges, including those throughout the valley, increased precipitation to nearly 80 percent of normal for March.

Still, with the snow season almost over, forecasters are painting a less than perfect picture for this summer's water supply.

"The majority of streams in Idaho are forecast in the 40-65 percent of average range," the conservation service report stated. "A wet and cool spring would reduce and delay irrigation demand and extend our limited water supply."

The current forecast is dire enough to cause the Blaine County Commission to request that the state make an emergency drought declaration for the area.

At a meeting at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey on Tuesday, the commissioners authorized a drought declaration request, which needs approval from both Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and the Idaho Department of Water Resources to be enacted.

If approved, the declaration would provide surface water irrigators with some relief during a difficult water year.

Kevin Lakey, water master for the Big Wood River Basin, said the declaration would allow irrigators to process requests to transfer water uses, such as switching irrigation rights from one field to another or even to a neighbor, much more quickly. He said that whereas it could normally take up to three months for a rancher to be able to make such a transfer, with the declaration it would take only days.

According to the report, the Mackay and Little Wood reservoirs are near capacity, while Magic Reservoir south of Bellevue is about half full.

"Water managers are storing as much water in Idaho reservoirs as they can because of the limited amount of snow in the mountains," the report stated. "Unfortunately, water supply shortages will likely still occur and some reservoirs that typically fill will be challenged to reach their capacity without abundant spring precipitation."

In an interview last month, Ron Abramovich, a water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said spring's impact on the water supply remains uncertain.

"We can't forecast spring precipitation like we can monitor the snowpack," he said. "Not all the cards are dealt yet, but we're going to need it. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees."

Jon Duval:

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