Idaho looks like a winter wonderland of snow and icicles, but there remains the very real danger it could face its fifth drought year in a row.
Despite the foot of snow covering many Idaho towns, the mountain snowpack that represents next summer's water supply is well below normal.As of Thursday, snowpack in the Boise, Payette and Weiser River basins measured about 54 percent of normal in terms of water content. The Salmon River Basin showed 73 percent of normal, and the Big Wood and Big Lost basins registered 48 percent, the Soil Conservation Service reports.
And Idaho Water Resources officials are beginning to gear up for helping farmers, ranchers and others cope with yet another water-short year.
"Obviously, we're still in a drought," said Hal Anderson, bureau chief of technical services for Water Resources. "But it is still awfully early. Even though we're starting off on the wrong foot, we still have plenty of time to make things up."
Given the state typically receives 40 percent of its snowpack by Jan. 1, Anderson said southern Idaho will need 150 percent of normal precipitation between now and Feb. 1 to catch up.
Phil Morrisey, an SCS hydrologist, agreed. "Southern Idaho is in pretty bad shape for this time of year, but a couple of big storms coming through could change the picture real quick."
National Weather Service officials predict about 4 inches in the valleys from the arctic cold front pushing through the state, and about a foot of snow in the high country.
Next week, the SCS will release the results of its Jan. 1 snowpack survey of in-the-field measurements in addition to electronic monitoring sites. Thursday's report was based on electronic data alone.
"Unless we get something tremendous over the weekend, the figures won't change too much," Morrisey said.
Les Colin, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Boise, said despite the unusually deep snowpack in the Boise Valley, the Palmer Drought Index shows much of the state's southern tier is still in "extreme" drought.
The Dec. 15 index is based on long-term precipitation trends and soil moisture profiles.
The Panhandle, which has seen tremendous rain and snow this fall, has broken out of the drought, Colin said. Snowpack figures for the Clearwater River Basin are 133 percent of normal.
The valleys around Boise, Twin Falls and Idaho Falls all are in the "extreme" drought category, and the southeast around the Bear River is even worse off.
To break out of the drought, Colin said, southern Idaho valleys will need 4-6 inches of moisture, and southeastern Idaho will require 9 inches.
Even with the foot of snow Boise has received since Dec. 15, the water content is only registering about an inch, Colin said. Although southern Idaho is getting a slow start on snowpack, last year's conditions were far worse.
On Jan. 1, 1990, snowpack in the Boise Basin showed 25 percent of normal, the Payette was 30 percent, the Weiser 27 percent and Big Wood 34 percent.
Chances of catching up then seemed slim to none. But the Payette River Basin ended up with a water surplus, 120 percent of normal reservoir carry-over into 1991.
That is the amount of water left after the irrigation season.
Carry-over is better now than it was in 1988. Even if the Upper Snake, Boise and Payette river systems did not receive 100 percent of normal snowpack, reservoirs could still fill to about 80 percent, he said, depending on how fast the snow melts.
Water supplies in the Boise River's three reservoirs showed 65 percent of normal; impressive, given that local farmers had about half their normal irrigation supplies.