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Recent storms helped, but just a little

Recent storms helped, but just a little

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

POCATELLO – A series of April snow and rain storms have not been enough to dig Idaho out of its drought.

But they have helped.

A little.

“They should help a little, but we still have a big hole to fill,” said Bob Carter, manager of the Boise Project Board of Control, which provides water to five irrigation districts in southwestern Idaho.

“Hopefully, these storms will give us a little more water this year, but it didn’t cure the drought,” Carter said.

“Overall, the additional moisture is helpful, but it doesn’t really get us out of the drought,” said Corey Loveland, a supervisory hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Idaho snow survey program.

Loveland said the widespread storms, coupled with colder-than-normal temperatures, have slowed the demand for irrigation.

Agriculture is the main sector of Idaho’s economy, according to a study by the University of Idaho, and water is the lifeblood of farming.

Farmers and ranchers especially in arid southern Idaho depend on the water from the state’s reservoir systems to get them through the hot, dry summer months.

Heading into 2022, most reservoir systems in the state were well below average and irrigators were hoping for good snowpack levels through the winter to fill those reservoirs to levels that could ensure irrigators have an adequate amount of water this year.

That didn’t happen.

The recent storms have provided an assist, but they haven’t solved the drought and they won’t be enough to fill the reservoirs, according to water managers around the state.

“Anything helps but it really wasn’t an extraordinary amount of precip that fell,” said Tony Olenichak, watermaster for Water District 1, which encompasses the upper Snake River system.

Water District 1 is the state’s largest and most important in terms of providing water to farmers and other irrigators. It provides enough water to irrigate well over 1 million acres of crop land in southern Idaho.

The recent snowstorms did help snowpack levels, said Mark Zirschky, manager of Pioneer Irrigation District, which provides water to 34,000 acres in the Treasure Valley area of southwestern Idaho.

But to what extent won’t be known for a while and that depends on whether the snow runs off in such a way that allows most of it to reach the reservoirs, he added.

“On paper, we’re definitely seeing the increased snowpack,” Zirschky said. “But it’s too early to tell yet how much it did benefit us.”

Idaho irrigators suffered through one of the worst droughts in recorded history last year and yields for virtually all of the major crops grown in the state were way down as a result.

For example, total wheat production in Idaho was down 32 percent last year compared with the previous year, even though acres were basically the same.

Total barley production in Idaho, the nation’s top barley producing state, was down 21 percent last year.

Idaho’s water year runs from October to September and that period ending in 2021 was the fifth driest water year on record, according to David Hoekema, a hydrologist with the Idaho Department of Water Resources.

The only drier years were in Idaho were 1924, 1931, 1977 and 1994.

A brutal early-season heat wave last year exacerbated the results of the drought.

If high temperatures are near normal this year and the state receives a decent amount of moisture this spring, that would help considerably, water managers said.

But at this point, they added, even that won’t be enough to make the 2022 growing season in Idaho a normal one.

“It’s certainly going to be a less-than-average water year,” Olenichak said.

About the author

Sean Ellis