Washing away Idaho’s drought fears

A Pineapple Express has increased the amount of rain and snow in the state’s watersheds — just as farmers need it

rbarker@idahostatesman.comFebruary 17, 2014 

The series of rain and wet snowstorms that have rolled through Idaho since early February have dramatically improved the snowpack across the state, replacing fear with optimism for farmers, power producers and boaters.

National Weather Service officials forecast more precipitation in the next week, but with colder temperatures they say should add to the snowpack in the Boise mountains and other ranges across the state.

“We’re in a really wet pattern,” said Troy Lindquist, a National Weather Service hydrologist. “But that Pineapple Express is going to go away.”

The Pineapple Express is a nickname for a very wet weather pattern that forms in the Pacific Ocean and moves inland. And there’s no assurance it will last. Lindquist showed maps Friday to a group of state, federal and private water experts at the Idaho Department of Water Resources that suggest Idaho weather may remain wet into the spring but enter another dry period next fall.

“We don’t see any climate signals that make us hedge either way,” he said. “We’re still below normal. We’re not out of the woods yet.”

THE DIFFERENCE A WEEK CAN MAKE

On Feb. 7, the Natural Resources Conservation Service issued its monthly water supply outlook report. It warned that spring flows may not fill many reservoirs and could leave farmers across southern Idaho short of the water they need for their $6 billion industry.

A dry fall and early winter was followed by an extremely dry January, when southern Idaho went 16 days straight without precipitation.

The day after the report came out, snow started falling at Idaho District 63 Watermaster Rex Barrie’s home in Notus. By the evening of Feb. 9, he had 11 inches on the ground and the snow turned to rain.

“I was smiling,” Barrie said. “Rain in the Valley means better snow in the mountains.”

What made Barrie especially optimistic is that the soaking may increase the natural flows into the Boise River system this spring and early summer. The longer natural flows remain high, the later in the year he can go before using reservoir water for irrigation districts and canal companies.

Most years, natural flows meet irrigation demand until July 4. In 2013, irrigators tapped reservoirs in April.

This week, rain fell as high up as 7,000 feet, on top of snow from Bogus Basin to the mountains above Atlanta, said Ron Abramovich, water supply specialist with the NRCS.

He compared it to putting cherry sauce on an ice cream cone: As long as the snow soaks up the rain and it doesn’t begin flowing out the bottom and run off the side of the ice cream “mountain,” it’s good.

As of Friday, Mores Creek had more than 111 percent of its average snowpack and it continued to rain and snow. The Boise Basin as a whole reached 70 percent of snowpack — the minimum necessary to meet the year’s irrigation demand, Abramovich said.

“I don’t get excited until we exceed the monthly total and we’re already there,” Abramovich said.

This is the time of the year that farmers plan their crops and line up their financing for the season, making the storms’ arrival critical, he said. The heavy snows that filled central Idaho ranges and the Payette basin also mean good summer flows for boaters on the Salmon, Payette and Snake rivers.

POWER SURGE

Rain has not been as welcome as the snow for Idaho Power senior engineer Pam Pace. The rain that runs off is filling Brownlee Reservoir, but it’s the snow in the mountains that is critical to healthy flows in July, when Idaho Power needs its hydroelectric dams running at full power to meet peak electricity demand.

The starting point this January was especially dismal, Pace said.

Records go back to 1960, and the past 20 years have been the driest in the past 50 years. But this January was dry even by those standards. Using U.S. Army Corps of Engineers models, Idaho Power engineers found January flows were even lower than the lows reported in the 1930s.

“It’s such a relief that the (weather system) we were under has changed, and there’s a lot of potential for precipitation,” Pace said.

Owyhee County and Idaho’s far south have been caught up in the same drought conditions plaguing California. But heavy rains this week lifted flows in the Owyhee River from 200 cubic feet per second to 1,400 cfs by Friday, which is high for this time of year.

“One or two extreme events will get us to a normal year,” Abramovich said.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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