Idaho farmers praying for rain

The Boise Board of Control, which allocates irrigation water, is reducing allotments and tapping reservoirs early.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comApril 20, 2013 

0420 local irrigat

Boise Project Maintenance Foreman Clint McCormick adjusts the gate at the head of the Bennett Lateral coming off the New York Canal in East Boise on Friday. The gates are monitored and adjusted each day.

DARIN OSWALD — doswald@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

Tim Page finally told farmers this week they could expect to get about a third of the water they normally get from the Boise River through New York Canal.

Page, the watermaster and project manager for the Boise Board of Control, waited more than two weeks later than usual to set the allocation as he watched the weather and the mountains. He was hoping for spring rains and warm weather to offset the dismal winter snowpack - 71 percent of average - in the Boise Basin.

But the dry, cool conditions since irrigation season began April 1 have kept what snow is in the upper basin from melting and raising flows in the river.

In the meantime, he and other canal watermasters have been forced to call for reservoir operators to release water stored in reservoirs like Anderson Ranch, Arrowrock and Lucky Peak to meet the demand.

Page set the allocation Thursday at one foot instead of the three feet customers usually get. That means each acre of irrigated land will get 325,851 gallons.

"If it warms up and starts to melt that snow, Page said, "we might be able to add to that."

Some, but not all farmers have some carryover water stored in the reservoirs that they didn't use last year.

TOUGH CHOICES FOR FARMERS

For farmers like Richard Durant of Meridian, who farms 1,100 acres across the Treasure Valley, Page's allocation helps them decide what crops to plant - a decision that can mean tens of thousands of dollars in return at harvest time.

Durant has contracts for corn and sugar beets - high-value, high-water crops - he must meet.

He knew going into the season it was likely to be dry. But like most farmers, he'd been hopeful there'd be enough water in the reservoir to get him through the season.

But if the irrigation districts are having to tap stored water now, the canals may have to shut off early, in August instead of mid-September.

"The unknown question," he said, "is how long are we going to have water in the laterals?"

He still has time to make the final decision on replacing sugar beets and corn with barley or wheat.

"I'm going to pull some of the corn I had the ground already fertilized and ready to go for, and put it into barley, which uses less water," Durant said.

HOPING FOR RAIN

In past drought years, Treasure Valley farmers have been blessed with enough spring rain that they could irrigate less and keep water stored in the reservoirs.

"The last two times we've been in this situation, we had late May rains. But can I bank on that for the moment?" Durant asked.

The 90-day forecast is for dry weather, Page said. He's hoping the warm spell that is forecast to begin this weekend will melt upper elevation snow and add water to the reservoirs.

He wants a fast snowmelt that comes quickly. If the snowpack melts slowly, more of that precious water is lost to evaporation and seepage, he said.

A water shortage also could affect those homeowners who water their lawns with gravity or pressurized irrigation systems connected to canals, said Brian McDevitt, a board member for the New York Irrigation District, which serves customers in and around Boise.

"If they run out the canal in August, people's lawns could go brown early," McDevitt said.

Overall, however, residential users have more carryover water still in the reservoirs and are more likely to be OK this summer.

FLOATING SEASON

At Barber Park on Friday, all of the trails are dry and the Boise River is still well below its banks. Fly fishermen were safely wading in the relatively low water.

That's a stark contrast to last year, when the flood-filled river spilled into the lowlands of the park and the Boise Greenbelt.

Chris Osborn, a maintenance mechanic at the park, points to the parking lot below the education and event center.

"Last year this whole area was flooded," he said.

The floating season is expected to begin at the end of June as it usually does.

CONSERVATION URGED

Page and other irrigation officials are encouraging people to conserve water, both to stretch this season's irrigating and to leave some storage water in the reservoirs for next year in case it's another dry year.

"We keep getting questions about, 'How long is it going to go, Tim?'" Page said. "Well, it all depends on the weather."

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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