Wednesday, August 1, 2012

State declares drought emergency for Blaine County

Streamflows at 20 to 70 percent of normal

Express Staff Writer

Fields are irrigated in Quigley Canyon east of Hailey. Drought-like conditions have some irrigators in the county worried about water supplies. Photo by Mountain Express

State officials declared a drought emergency in Blaine County earlier this month in response to conditions that county officials say could cause some farmers to lose their crops.

Gov. Butch Otter and Idaho Department of Water Resources Interim Director Gary Spackman signed a declaration of drought emergency for Blaine County on July 16. The declaration will allow farmers to apply for temporary changes to their water rights in order to spread the available water over a greater area of land.

County Commissioner Larry Schoen said Monday that he had been contacted by a farmer in the Fish Creek drainage near Carey who was concerned that he might not have enough water to irrigate his crops.

"The idea was to be responsive and proactive," Schoen said. "You want to stay ahead of the curve. With irrigation, if you fall behind, you can't catch up. Your crop quality is compromised."

In Idaho, surface water rights govern the location of water use, the point at which water is diverted from a canal or ditch, the date of priority, flow rate and the amount of allowed water use.

Under Idaho Code, a declaration of drought emergency allows water rights holders to apply to transfer the location of use from one owned parcel to another. The change would only be temporary, and would expire on Dec. 31.

According to state law, the water supply can only be used for lands that would normally have a full water supply if not for the drought conditions.

Kevin Lakey, watermaster for irrigation districts 37 and 37M, said he has already received two requests to move water through the Big Wood River and he anticipates more.

"To move your water from one place to another, it's normally a permanent thing," he said. "It's a process. It takes three to six months."

However, he said, under the declaration, the process takes only a few days.


The last declaration of drought was in 2010. That order was issued in April, but very late spring rains came and made the drought declaration a moot point.

Lakey said a drought declaration was made in 2007, one of the driest years on record and the year of the Castle Rock Fire near Ketchum.

Schoen said both 2010 and 2011 were excellent spring rain years, but 2012 was not that lucky.

"It was a very cold and windy spring without some of the moisture into June that we've had," he said. "Crops were stressed early. I thought a lot of my barley had been killed."

Travis Jones, executive director of the Idaho Grain Producers Association, said the state was hit with everything from flooding to June frosts this spring.

"It's been a mixed bag of disaster-type weather," he said. "It's definitely been interesting."

On the upside, he said, farmers who can manage their water and irrigate their fields effectively can take advantage of high prices this year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1,234 counties across 31 states are suffering severe drought conditions, and none are in central Idaho.

"Clearly the Midwest and upper Midwest have been hit hard," Jones said. "Prices have obviously increased and continue to increase."

Most of the counties considered natural disaster areas in the West are in California, Nevada, Wyoming and Colorado.

Jones said dry-land farmers have been hit the hardest, but those with irrigation capabilities will likely be able to salvage something.

"Those who have a crop will be seeing high prices," he said. "For those who don't have a crop, we hope they bought crop insurance."

Kate Wutz:

Fish Creek Salvage

Dry conditions are causing concern for farmers in the Fish Creek drainage, but fish and fish advocates have reason to be concerned as well. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game announced Wednesday that Fish Creek Reservoir and the two-mile reach of Fish Creek from the Fish Creek Dam downstream to Fish Creek Road crossing in Blaine County was thrown open to fish salvage this week. Licensed anglers may take any number of fish by any means except firearms, explosives, chemicals or electric current. "We would rather have people harvest these fish than let them go to waste when the water levels drop to critical levels," said Doug Megargle, regional fisheries manager for the department. All restrictions will be reinstated as of Sept. 30.

Wildfires and shooting

With dry conditions across the state, public land agencies remind shooters that ammunition and certain targets can cause unexpected wildfires. Exploding rifle targets caused several fires throughout Idaho last month, though it is illegal to use exploding targets on public lands from May 10 to Oct. 10. Mardi Rhodes, spokeswoman for the Salmon-Challis National Forest, said certain ammunition and targets can cause fires in hot and dry conditions. "The target shooting and hunting community prides itself on being safe and responsible with firearms in all situations—from using them outdoors to storing them safely at home," she wrote in a press release. "Unusually dry conditions require an extra level of awareness and safety on the part of shooters." Rhodes recommends minimizing the risk of fires by not using steel-jacketed ammunition or ammunition with steel-core components. Tracer rounds are illegal on public lands.

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