Writings and observations

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When it comes to water, you want not too little, and not too much.

Lately, seems as if Idaho is getting stuck with one or the other.

On Wednesday, Acting Governor Brad Little tacked Custer, Elmore, and Gooding counties on to a State Disaster Declaration that already included a majority of Idaho counties. At this point – as this was written, anyway – almost three-fourths of Idaho counties are listed by the state as disaster areas owing to flooding.

You see it in remote parts of Custer County and in the population center at Boise, where part of the greenbelt is shut off from access because of high river water.

The water managers seem to have done an effective job of keeping the conditions from creating more damage, at least to this point. But the challenge continues, and there are limits to what they can do.

The snow precipitation report from the National Resources Conservation Service lists snowpack levels by basin around the western half of the country. In Idaho, the accumulated precipitation so far this year is mostly in the range of 140 to 160 percent of normal, compared to generally around 105 to 95 percent at this point last year.

The Little Wood and the Big Lost are the highest, at 177 percent, but the Boise River and the Snake River above the Palisades Dam are at 159 percent – high levels. The lowest in the state is the Clearwater Basin at 121 percent.

That portends a real possibility of more problems ahead, if the melting doesn’t organize itself just right.

That’s some background for the governmental push and pull over Idaho and its disaster status, one partly approved and partly not.

The procedure is that (often after an initial request from the county level) states make the request for federal help, and the feds – meaning the president or a disaster agency, or both, sign off (which they usually do). In late April, President Donald Trump did sign a state-requested declaration covering Cassia, Franklin, Gooding, Jefferson, Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka, Twin Falls and Washington counties for their flooding and related problems in March.

Another declaration covering Bonner, Boundary, Clearwater, Idaho, Kootenai, Latah, Shoshone and Valley counties awaits action.

However, another declaration requested by the state, covering Ada, Canyon, Custer, Payette and Washington counties (for December and January snowstorms) was – unusually – rejected. Federal Emergency Management Agency Acting Administrator Robert Fenton turned down the state request: “After a thorough review of all the information contained in your initial request and appeal, we reaffirm our original findings that the impact from this event is not of the severity and magnitude that warrants a major disaster declaration.”

Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter said in response that “The window is closed for this particular effort to get federal help addressing snow-related destruction and preventing additional damage statewide. But we have one Presidential Disaster Declaration approved and another pending, so we’re exploring every opportunity to help our communities address their most serious recovery needs.”

The state may need to push hard, since it now may be behind the curve on helping some of these areas with recovery. It raises a question, given how uncommonly such requests are dismissed, whether the new administration is taking a new path on federal assistance.

If it is, Idahoans have all the more cause to watch closely, maybe with some apprehension, the rate of snow melt this spring.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus