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For the week of February 21 through 27, 2001

Water managers 
sound alarms

Basinís snowpack is only 53 percent of normal


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

Even if Idaho receives twice its normal precipitation between now and spring, it probably wonít make up deficiencies in the snowpack that were left from an unusually dry fall and winter.

South-facing slopes that were bare Monday received a carpet of snow Tuesday. But water managers fear spring snows will be too little and too late.

With each passing day this winter, the stateís percentage of average snowpack numbers have dropped as winter storms continued to skirt to the south.

The Big and Little Wood river valleys posted 53 percent of normal water content Monday. Thatís 4 percent lower than early Januaryís percentages.

All of Idahoís other river basins show similar low water content measurements in their snowpacks.

South facing slopes in the Wood River and Sawtooth valleys were bare Monday, and though there are still about two months of the winter season left, the stateís water managers are beginning to sound alarms.

"Are we okay? Probably not," said Dick Larsen, Idaho Department of Water Resources spokesman. "Weíre not going to be in very good shape this year. Some of the snowpack levels weíre talking about now are reaching low figures we havenít seen since the Ď60s."

Snow level at the Ketchum Ranger District was only 20 inches Monday. Seasonal total so far is 48.5 inches. The highest mark recorded at the site was 203 total inches in the winter of 1982-83.

 

Larsen said much of the stateís snow this year has fallen at low elevations, not in the mountains where it usually melts off gradually into summer.

"The snow thatís there is, in many cases, down low," he said. "That means itís going to come off early. We need to see a change in something. The trouble is, weíre running out of time."

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Districtís Web site, snow water content levels across the state range from 45 percent to 75 percent of average and summer streamflow forecasts range from 50 percent to 75 percent of normal. And thatís assuming that a near-normal amount of precipitation falls through the remainder of the winter, Larsen pointed out.

The Big Wood River drainage is forecast to be among the lowest flowing rivers this spring, at 42 to 55 percent of average flows.

Also included in that range are popular boating rivers including the Payette and Snake River through Hells Canyon.

"As a result of the lack of high-elevation snow, water users will see streamflows return to base levels earlier than normal," the Web site reports.

Another way of tracking winter snowfall is through municipal snow removal budgets.

Ketchum city administrator Jim Jaquet said the city budgets $175,000 for snow removal each year. Two years ago, the city spent $182,875 on snow removal, exceeding the budget by nearly $8,000.

Last year, the city spent $80,000 on snow removal, but as of Monday, Ketchum had spent only $19,886 for snow removal this winter.

"But itís important to remember you can spend a lot of money in a short amount of time if we do get some snow," Jaquet said.

Sun Valley Water and Sewer District manager Jack Brown said he will have to wait and see what happens, but a water conservation program, similar to what was implemented last August in the city of Sun Valley, will probably come into play again this summer.

"It just depends entirely on the weather and the underground aquifer," he said.

In addition, this winterís low snowpack is beginning to concern wildfire experts.

The snowpack is a primary factor in predicting what kind of fire season is ahead. When snow melts in the spring, it provides moisture for forests and grasslands. Without enough snow, dry conditions could again invite fires comparable to last yearís.

"One of the cards has already pretty much been dealt to us, and that is the snowpack," said Rick Ochoa, staff meteorologist for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. "Conditions may improve a little, but itís unlikely that the West will get back to normal snowpack by springtime."

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