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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

Hoekema said two other drought years were worse on the Boise River System, which is fed by water from Lucky Peak, Arrowrock and Anderson Ranch dams: “1977 … was the year when the snow just didn’t accumulate in the mountains, so people saw it coming. In 1992 (we were) in the midst of a multiyear drought, so people could see that coming. … This one really took us by surprise.

“In the Boise area, we’re not looking at an unprecedented drought … what’s really hurting people is they weren’t expecting this.”

Drought conditions ramped up in June as the Northwest was hit with an unprecedented heat wave. “Severe drought” and “extreme drought” distinctions began to expand rapidly.

Currently, all of Southwest Idaho — and most of the state — is in moderate to severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Some spots in the Panhandle and Southeast Idaho are in extreme drought, but nowhere is as hard-hit as the Wood River Valley, which has been in a state of exceptional drought — the worst category — for weeks.

“They saw this drought coming, in a sense, because they were already in drought. But even for them, this hit a lot harder than expected,” Hoekema said.

The Wood River area made headlines in June when water managers stopped irrigation supply from Magic Reservoir after just 27 days of water flow. Water users were able to strike a deal to keep crops watered “enough to just limp by,” said Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, who helped facilitate the exchange.


Water users in the Boise area are also starting to feel a squeeze on resources. Pioneer Irrigation District Superintendent Mark Zirschky said that so far, this year resembles past drought years — though he, too, said he was caught off-guard by the conditions.

“This year the snowpack was looking really good, but then it didn’t hold. Conditions were that it came off slowly at first but never made it to the reservoir. Then it got hot and it just evaporated,” he said.

The city of Caldwell and Pioneer Irrigation, whose district covers 35,000 acres largely between Caldwell and Nampa, recently asked customers to reduce water use, suggesting water-saving measures like alternating watering days between neighbors, not using potable or hose water to irrigate, reducing shower length time, and running dishwashers and washing machines only when they are full.

Even with those measures, Zirschky said, he expects the district will turn off its water supply in September, a month earlier than usual.


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