The 'D' Word 

Why the tiny town of Heise is so important to Idaho's water outlook

Intense frost along Dry Creek Trail indicates how long the Treasure Valley has been gripped by bitter cold (but dry) conditions through much of this winter.

Ron Abramovich

Intense frost along Dry Creek Trail indicates how long the Treasure Valley has been gripped by bitter cold (but dry) conditions through much of this winter.

Snowpack, cloud seeding, hydropower, irrigation, recreation, historical meteorology. They were all hot topics of discussion at January's 77th annual gathering of the Idaho Water Users Association. But the "D" word lingered at the edge of most of the discussions of what's in store for 2014.

Drought and talk of possible water allocation and/or curtailment were foremost in the minds of irrigators, hydropower engineers and skiers, as they pored over optimistic forecasts for the remainder of this winter, while looking at the latest measurements of Idaho's snowpacks.

"The snowpack is the biggest variable," said Lyle Swank, water master for Idaho Water District 1--the state's largest district, covering most of the Upper Snake River basin above Milner Dam and serving thousands of individual water users and 1.2 million irrigated acres.

Swank pointed to forecast trends for winter storm "Maximus" which, as Boise Weekly was going to press, was expected to drop more than a foot of new snow on the Cascades, Bitterroots and Teton mountain ranges. Swank said that was of particular importance to his district's water users because the Tetons will begin pushing their melt-off into the headwaters of the Snake River this spring.

At the same meeting, hydrologists with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, who regularly monitor Idaho's snowfall, filled their presentations with graphs and charts that, simply put, indicated a game of catch-up for nearly every Gem State drainage. Optimistic by nature, the presenters reminded their audience of similar winters in 1969, 1982 and 2008, when late winter precipitation helped rescue water resources for irrigation and hydropower.

"It's a little like the tortoise and the hare with winter storms," Swank said of 2013, which, so far, has shaped up as a low-snow winter. "We don't know what the [water] allocation is going to be; but we do know we're way below average after hot and dry summers in 2012 and 2013."

Hydrologists pay special attention to one water-gauging station on the Snake River near the Southeast Idaho town of Heise. It's important, Swank said, because the information is collected below some of the region's major tributaries that flow into the upper Snake River. Additionally, Heise is located below the Jackson Lake and Palisades reservoirs, which are key to many farmers and ranchers on the Snake River Plain who hold crucial surface water irrigation rights. To that end, Heise may be the last, good indication before any major diversions might begin, which would take water off the Snake River system, according to Swank. As of Jan. 24, the reservoirs at Jackson Lake and Palisades were only 23 percent full.

"We're still hopeful for getting through this year. If we get close to average snowpack by the end of winter, I think we'll do pretty well," Swank said, adding that the situation is better in Idaho than for farmers in California, where the snowpack has come up very short and wildfires have already erupted.

But the big questions for irrigators and recreationists remain: Where is the snow? Why does this winter look the way it does? Is the lack of 2014 precipitation an indication of things to come?

Very few of Idaho's reservoirs currently hold as much water as they did this time last year. But winter's remaining months could still bring Idaho's mountains up to average for snowpack, the key ingredient in meeting Idaho's water needs, according to forecasters with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Conservation of water begins with the snow survey," states a logo stamped on the NRCS's Jan. 1 water supply outlook report, which concluded, "Current snowpacks range from less than 50 percent of average across central and southern Idaho to near normal in the Upper Snake. This means we are now playing catch-up and need the jet stream to target Idaho and the West instead of the Midwest and eastern U.S."

Historical data indicates mountain precipitation may still come later this winter, helping to bring up the snowpack to average, at least. Swank said there's still a chance for such a recovery this winter, but there is a nearly equal chance of yet another dry year, similar to droughts between 2000-2004, when reservoirs were as low at this time of year as they are now.

As dams like Palisades--with low reserves from the previous year and low water resources from this winter--continue to let water flow downstream for the sake of balanced river ecology (specifically, fisheries), agricultural interests are beginning to voice greater concern about how water flow is managed and whether they will get sufficient water this summer. Future irrigation and hydropower planning will likely be influenced by Dr. Charles Luce's research and climate scientists' predictions of future precipitation. Luce, a U.S. Forest Service research hydrologist with the Boise Aquatic Sciences Library, published his most recent findings in the December 2013 issue of Science magazine. Luce says he has discovered a link between high-elevation precipitation and the strength of winter winds off of the North Pacific. He concluded that decreased winds off of the ocean continue to affect how much, or little, snow accumulates in the Cascades and the Rockies.

Luce said he's being asked to present his "big picture" findings all across the Northwest this year. Science aside, the mantra for the rest of the winter remains: "Let it snow!"

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