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Water outlook forces Idaho spud-growers to prepare for crop shift

By John O'Connell
Capital Press

ABERDEEN, Idaho - Growers in a major eastern Idaho potato production area say they plan to significantly scale back their usual fall spud-bed preparations in case another dry winter forces them to shift acreage to grain.
Some growers served by the Aberdeen-Springfield Canal Co. are also stocking up on extra wheat or barley seed as a precaution.
A string of dry months that began in January has continued into August, said Ron Abramovich, Idaho water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Monthly precipitation in Idaho's Upper Snake River Basin through Aug. 20 was 18 percent of normal, Abramovich said. The basin's reservoir system was at 24 percent of capacity, with American Falls and Palisades reservoirs listed at 12 percent full and Jackson Lake at 46 percent full.
"The reservoirs will pretty much be depleted by the end of the season," Abramovich said.
Pacific Ocean conditions heading into winter are once again neutral, meaning a sparse snowpack is just as likely as ample moisture throughout the region.
Without storage carry-over, Aberdeen-Springfield Canal Co. General Manager Steve Howser predicts a second dry winter would leave his growers with a 100,000-acre-foot water deficit next spring. This season, he estimates his water will run out on Sept. 21, though he may pick up some natural river flows in October, after upstream users have finished their crops. Absent a better snowpack this winter, Howser said growers could be curtailed next season by mid-August, preventing them from finishing off sugar beets and spuds in fields without supplemental deep wells.
"I don't know what kind of winter we're going to have, but if you're going to plan for the worst, plant grain on the canal," Howser said.
Howser said spring grain acres were up about 20 percent this season throughout his company, likely to due to water constraints, and he expects even more grain next season.
Aberdeen spud grower Conan Feld will deviate from his usual four-year rotation in order to have enough ground with supplemental deep wells to fill his spud contracts with processors. He expects to fertilize and fumigate 75 percent less spud acreage this fall, due in part to the water outlook. He estimates spud fumigation and fertilization costs $450 per acre, and any grain crop planted on spud-prepared ground couldn't offset the losses. He'll wait to buy grain seed until he sees how the winter shapes up.
"We're going to prepare everything like we're going to plant back to wheat. If we get the winter we need, we'll have a lot more work to do in the spring," Feld said. "I think ultimately you're going to see a reduction on planted potato acres."
Aberdeen grower Ritchey Toevs plans to have extra grain seed in stock and to delay much of his fall fumigation and fertilization for spuds until spring. About half of his acres have no supplemental well water.
"I'd sure think about making sure I have spring wheat seed tied up," Toevs said, adding the best varieties can be scarce if growers make last-second purchases. "That would probably be a $15 per acre mistake compared with a $500 mistake if I feel forced into raising a potato crop and don't have enough water."

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