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Idaho’s 2022 water supply situation is not looking rosy

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

POCATELLO – With water levels in Idaho’s reservoirs well below normal last fall, irrigators entered this winter hoping for above-average snowpack in order to ensure a reliable supply of water for the 2022 growing season.

That has not happened. In fact, snowpack levels are well below normal in most basins and Idaho’s 2022 water supply outlook doesn’t look very rosy at the moment.

“It’s looking like it’s going to be a pretty tight water situation this year,” said Bob Carter, manager of the Boise Project Board of Control, which provides water to five irrigation districts in southwestern Idaho.    

On the other side of the state, Tony Olenichak, watermaster of Water District 1, the state’s largest, isn’t feeling any more optimistic about this year’s water supply outlook.

“It looks like it’s going to be a tight water year,” he said.

Water District 1, which feeds the upper Snake River system, is Idaho’s most important in terms of providing irrigation water to farmers and provides enough water to irrigate well over 1 million acres of crop land.

The plentiful rainfall that soaked many parts of Idaho last fall has helped soil moisture levels but it’s snow that fills the state’s reservoir systems and those reservoirs provide critical irrigation water to farmers, ranchers and other irrigators during the dry, hot summer months.

The reservoirs are the life blood of Idaho’s important agricultural sector and right now, they don’t look so good.

“It’s starting to look not too great from an irrigation standpoint,” said Rockland dryland farmer Cory Kress.

A few weeks ago, people were saying if Idaho had a great March in terms of mountain snowpack, things would be OK, he pointed out.

“So far, I’m not seeing a great March,” he added.

Idaho’s snowpack season typically runs until April 1 so there is still some time for a turnaround, but the clock is ticking.

A wet spring or a few good mountain snowstorms over the next few weeks would help significantly, Olenichak says.

But, he adds, “Right now, it’s not looking too good.”

Last year’s severe drought, exacerbated by a brutal heat wave early in the growing season, resulted in yields in Idaho being down significantly for almost every crop.

But most Idaho reservoir systems had a good amount of carryover water heading into the 2021 growing season and that helped prevent 2021 from being a disaster for many Idaho farmers and ranchers.

Idaho irrigators didn’t have that luxury of full reservoirs heading into this winter and now they are hoping for a good finish to the 2022 winter snowpack season or at least a wet spring.

If Idaho is blessed with a wet spring, most farmers will be able to juggle things around make do, Kress said.
“But if we get another dry spring like we had last year, we’re all in trouble,” he said. “The weather pattern has to change or we’ll be in the same boat here shortly as we were last year.”

During the Idaho Water Supply Committee meeting March 10, David Hoekema, a hydrologist with the Idaho Department of Water Resources, said Idaho started with a perfect wet fall and plentiful early winter snowpack levels.

But since Jan. 7, there has been a failure of normal precipitation and snowpack has flatlined in multiple basins, he added.