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Major drought in Idaho could last years, water manager says

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 10, 2021

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho is facing unprecedented drought despite getting normal snow levels last winter, and water managers warn the state could be entering a dry spell that may last for years.

“Idaho is in the midst of a drought that is unprecedented in recent memory, mostly due to an exceptionally dry spring followed by a summer heat wave,” David Hoekema, hydrologist for the Idaho Department of Water Resources, wrote in a new analysis, the Idaho Press reported. “Without a snowpack that is significantly greater than normal next winter, Idaho could be seeing several years with limited water supply.”

Few saw this coming, as Idaho began the year with normal snowfall in the mountains, though temperatures were above normal every month but February. Then came a dry spring, followed by a blistering hot summer. The state’s basins all experienced the hottest June and July on record, Hoekema said.

“With storage being rapidly depleted across the state, concern is rising that we may be entering into a multiyear drought,” he said.

Still, it’s not the driest year on record in Idaho. That came in 1977, Hoekema said, which became known as “the year without snow.” Historically, Idaho’s drought years have followed winters with poor snowpack levels.

Irrigation-reliant farmers saw the reasonable snowpack levels in late March and planted accordingly, not expecting the dry, hot weather that followed.

“This year’s a really tough water year for farmers in Idaho,” said Sean Ellis, spokesman for the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation. “If they could’ve foreseen this … there would’ve been some farmers that would’ve switched from higher-water crops like sugar beets and potatoes into lower-water crops” like barley, wheat, hay and dry beans.

Thanks to the reservoirs, many farmers’ crops will survive the season, Ellis said, though many are reporting lower yields. Next year could be more troublesome.

“We finished last year’s irrigation season with carryover water that was above normal,” Ellis said. “This year, we’re not going to do that.”

Hoekema wrote in his report that it could take several years for some of the state’s reservoirs to recover. That means less water for everything from irrigating crops to providing water for fast-growing communities, and water officials around the state are strongly urging conservation.

SUEZ Water, which serves 240,000 people in Boise and the surrounding area, reported in late July that its customers’ water use was up 15%, using a billion gallons more than anticipated, largely for lawn-watering amid the heat. It urged water-saving measures, including limiting lawn-watering and not watering during the heat of the day.

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