Writings and observations

A dry time

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
Idaho

When I want to check an official record for an indication of how wet or dry the region is, I usually go to the Western Regional Climate Center (wrcc.dri.edu), which among other things compiles snowpack information for the western United States. The numbers there rise and fall, but at the moment the numbers on its charts seem not to look all that bad.

Usually I look for the percent of normal accumulated precipitation, which shows how various areas – river basins mainly, but broken down to much smaller units – are faring. 100 percent at this time of year typically would indicate normal levels. 150 percent would suggest some risk of flooding (at least in some places, depending on the lay of the land); 50 percent or less usually means dry times ahead.

The “water year” for measurement purposes started at the beginning of October, and for some weeks toward the end of last year the numbers were looking good, even on the high side. But in the last couple of months there’s been a gradual drop.

They’re still not terrible, and if they maintain where they are now into summer Idaho would have ample water. The Spokane River basin, at this writing, was 90 percent; the Salmon River, 97 percent; the Little Wood River basin 80 percent. Some are lower, like the Medicine Lodge area (64 percent) and Bear River Basin (76 percent). These are areas not usually awash in water to start with.

The problem is that so far this year, week after week, the numbers have been falling. The omens are not especially good.

I’d be uneasy about interpreting some of this except for the road trip I took last week around the Northwest. I know what February usually looks like in many of the state’s landscapes – in most years past there’s a good deal of white out there, especially in higher elevations – and it doesn’t much look that way now.

The standout was the Long Valley – the McCall and Cascade area. February is when McCall holds its traditional Winter Carnival, the centerpiece of which is a large collection of ice sculptures. The dates this year were January 27 to February 5, and there were as usual some great sculptures. (The winner was a Sphinx and pyramid theme. McCall usually is bathed in white during and for some time after the event.

But this year they held it not a moment too early. By the time early last week I passed through McCall, the snow was almost all gone, and only a few small, melting sculptures remained.

Look up to the mountainsides around Long Valley and you’ll find checkerboard broad and white surfaces, nothing like the solid white of yore.

The story was the same almost everywhere I went. The good news was the roads were clear and dry, a contrast to many February road trips around Idaho. But there are some serious negatives.

I’ve heard a number of reactions to all this. One is a growing sense that the risk of major wildfires is rising rapidly, and that may be the case.

But it’s also looking like a low-water year generally. There’ll be some tense times ahead.

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