Idaho drought graphic

This map, part of a new drought analysis from the Idaho Department of Water Resources, shows much of Idaho falling into an “exceptional drought” categorization based on March through July precipitation in 2021.

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BOISE — Idaho’s current drought already has broken an array of records, and while it’s not the driest year ever on record, it’s proving particularly difficult because it started after a normal snow year, catching farmers and other water users unaware.

“Idaho is in the midst of a drought that is unprecedented in recent memory, mostly due to an exceptionally dry spring followed by a summer heat wave,” David Hoekema, hydrologist for the Idaho Department of Water Resources, wrote in a new analysis for the department. “Without a snowpack that is significantly greater than normal next winter, Idaho could be seeing several years with limited water supply.”

He warned, “With storage being rapidly depleted across the state, concern is rising that we may be entering into a multiyear drought.”

Few saw this coming, as Idaho began the year with normal snowfall in the mountains, though temperatures were above normal every month but February. Then came a dry spring, followed by a blistering-hot summer.

“June and July set the new two-month temperature record in Idaho,” Hoekema reported. “All basins experienced the hottest June and July on record.”

The state’s driest year in living memory, according to Hoekema, was 1977, which became known as “the year without snow.” Past Idaho droughts have consistently started with a severe lack of winter snow.

“This drought is really unprecedented, in that we had a reasonable snowpack in the winter, but the record-setting heat and dryness of spring resulted in an unforeseen extreme drought.”

Hoekema analyzed temperature and precipitation records and reported that from March to July of this year is “the driest period within living memory for most water users in Idaho.” The only year, since record-keeping started in 1895, that was drier during that time period was 1924.

“With a reasonable snowpack in the mountains on April 1, most basins in Idaho were predicted to have adequate water supply for the irrigation season,” Hoekema wrote. “However, shockingly low precipitation this spring caught forecasters completely by surprise.”

“Because this extreme level of drought was not expected, irrigators did not plan crop mixes for the level of water shortages they are seeing,” Hoekema wrote. “Expectations are that the state’s aquifers will be hit hard this year, and multiyear reservoirs may be depleted to levels that may take several years to recover.”

That means less water for everything from irrigating crops in fields to providing water for fast-growing Idaho communities, and water officials around the state are strongly urging conservation.

SUEZ Water, which serves 240,000 people in Boise and the surrounding area, reported in late July that its customers’ water usage was up 15%, using a billion gallons more than anticipated, largely for lawn-watering amid the heat. It urged water-saving measures, including limiting lawn-watering and not watering during the heat of the day.

“This year’s a really tough water year for farmers in Idaho,” said Sean Ellis, spokesman for the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation. “If they could’ve foreseen this … there would’ve been some farmers that would’ve switched from higher-water crops like sugar beets and potatoes into lower-water crops,” like barley, wheat, hay and dry beans, he said.

This year, thanks to Idaho’s reservoir water, “A lot of farmers are going to make it by the skin of their teeth,” Ellis said, “but really everyone’s eyes are on next year. We finished last year’s irrigation season with carry-over water that was above normal. This year, we’re not going to do that.”

Farmers also are reporting lower yields due to the extreme summer heat, he said. A barley farmer from near Blackfoot told Ellis “he couldn’t get his pivots around the field fast enough to keep up with the heat.”

Hoekema said, “Typically what we see is dry years tend to come in cycles. And we went from three or four pretty decent years, for most basins across the state, and now we’re hit really hard by the first dry year in what could be a cycle.”

The key will be a strong snowpack this winter, he said — which could happen, with forecasts showing a “La Nina” weather pattern.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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