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Idaho drought surprises experts, results in watering cutbacks for farmers, residents

Nicole Blanchard and Rachel Spacek, Idaho Statesman on

Published in News & Features

BOISE, Idaho — The 100-degree temperatures are taking a toll on Idaho farmers, and worries about water usage are becoming commonplace.

Gary Lucas, stock seed manager with Crookham Company in Caldwell, said the heat wave this summer has farmers watering crops every four days, when normally they could stretch that to seven.

Irrigation districts also warn that they might have to shut off water in September, over a month before the typical cutoff date. Lucas worries there is even a risk that water could shut off in August.

“If they shut off water in August, many crops won’t make it,” he said.

Josie Erksine, a farmer and co-founder of Peaceful Belly Farms in Caldwell, said her lettuce and leafy greens are burning in the fields. In an effort to keep things alive in the high heat of the past few weeks, Erskine said they have had to increase their watering, something she called “heartbreaking” during what has become Southwest Idaho’s worst drought in years.

Now Treasure Valley water officials are urging residents and farmers to use water wisely — and wondering whether the dry spell will stretch into the future, and how bad things will get.

 

This water year started off fairly normal, with snowpack at 70% to 80% of average in most parts of the state. But as spring went on, little rain fell. When snowpack began to melt, it drained into the already dry soil instead of running off into reservoirs. By May, experts were forecasting abnormally dry conditions across Idaho. When record-setting temperatures and a historic heat wave hit in June and July, the drought rapidly worsened.

“What we’re seeing is not at all common,” said David Hoekema, a hydrologist with the Idaho Department of Water Resources, in a phone interview. “This is a drought that nobody’s ever witnessed before.”

Hoekema said the extent of the drought, while not Idaho’s worst on record, took water resource experts by surprise. Typically, he said, decent snowpack is an indicator of a good water year. The extreme lack of precipitation in the spring played a key role.

Idaho has received an average of just under 4.4 inches of precipitation this year, less than half of the normal amount. It’s the second-worst precipitation year in recorded history. The worst on record was 1924, when just 3.5 inches of precipitation had fallen by the same date.

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