One of the things Idaho does better than most other states - and you could realistically argue does it better than any other - is water management. Nobody’s perfect, but Idaho, which has an active, thorough state management system, does it well.
That’s fortunate for Idaho, especially in this coming year. We seem to be headed toward some dry times.
That’s a broad “we,” because new estimates are that 88 percent of the western United States is now considered to be in drought, including practically all of the states to Idaho’s south and west. But Idaho is not escaping.
Each week, I check the snow and precipitation numbers from the National Resources Conservation Service, which breaks down its snowpack and water reports by river basin, 22 of them in Idaho. (They aren’t necessarily the way everyone would group them; “Northern Panhandle” is listed as a single basin. But generally they come close.) I look for their numbers showing the current “percent of normal accumulated precipitation” - in rough terms, the amount of snowpack and available water compared to the long-term normal for that area.
It’s worth noting here that in significant parts of Idaho, mainly in the south, the normal climate is arid enough that there’s not a lot of margin for error. A drop from the norm in, say, the Coeur d’Alene country is often easier to manage than a comparable drop in, say, the Magic Valley.
Exactly two years ago, Idaho had a not-terrific-but-good water year. At this point two years ago (to draw some scattered examples among the basins), the Clearwater River basin was at 95 percent, the Weiser was at 122, the Boise was at 111, the Little Wood at 120, the Henry’s Fork/Teton at 114, Goose Creek at 137, the Owyhee at 121, the Bear River at 115. The other basins generally also showed similar numbers.
Last year, the picture turned toward the dry. At this point a year ago, the Clearwater River basin was at 92 percent, the Weiser was at 84, the Boise was at 78, the Little Wood at 61, the Henry’s Fork/Teton at 91, Goose Creek at 95, the Owyhee at 84, the Bear River at 90. The other basins generally also showed similar numbers.
That was quite a drop. Idaho had some help last year from banked water storage, but that’s less available now than it was then.
Here are the comparable numbers from this week, this year: the Clearwater River basin was at 88 percent, the Weiser was at 73, the Boise was at 74, the Little Wood at 57, the Henry’s Fork/Teton at 81, Goose Creek at 72, the Owyhee at 65, the Bear River at 75. The other basins generally also showed similar numbers.
Notice the comprehensive, clear and substantial drop, all over the state? That reflects actual water volume.
There have been specific impacts from this already. On May 26, the Idaho Department of Water Resources sent orders to 129 water users in southern Idaho saying they would have to cut back on their water use: “The Upper Snake River Basin, like much of Southern Idaho, experienced a very dry winter with below normal snowpack. The Army Corps of Engineers-Bureau of Reclamation May 1 coordinated streamflow runoff forecast predicted a 2.1 million acre-foot runoff volume in the Snake River from May through July, which is approximately 74 percent of normal.”
That’s not likely to be the end of it, either.
The impacts of low water are widespread, starting with agriculture but rippling well beyond it, especially into the risk of wildfires. Last year was a decent wildfire season for Idaho, as these things go, and this year hasn’t started badly. But the season is just getting started.
Water is going to have to be managed carefully this year, all over the western states and beyond. Idaho does have the opportunity to make the best of a tough situation.