Idaho’s Owhyee County in drought emergency
By John O’Connell
Though recent storms have dramatically improved the water outlook for most of Idaho, Owyhee County remains so dry many growers there anticipate receiving just a quarter of their usual irrigation supply.
On March 5, USDA declared Owyhee County, located in the southwest corner of the state, a primary natural disaster area due to drought, making farm operators eligible for low-interest Farm Service Agency loans. Farmers have eight months from the declaration date to make their loan applications.
Growers in contiguous counties — including Ada, Canyon, Elmore and Twin Falls counties in Idaho, Elko and Humboldt counties in Nevada and Malheur County, Ore. — are also eligible for the drought-emergency benefits.
Other USDA programs that could benefit producers facing water shortages include the Emergency Conservation Program, federal crop insurance and the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program.
Jay Chamberlin, general manager of Owyhee Irrigation District, said water will likely be especially short for high-elevation growers covering 50,000 acres, who draw only from Owyhee Reservoir without supplemental in-stream flows from the Snake River.
“If we were to try to deliver water to them now, we’re looking at a 25 percent delivery rate, which is 1 acre foot,” said Chamberlin, who updated his shareholders on the outlook during a recent standing-room-only meeting.
He expects storage water will run out between late June and the first week of July, based on past years with similar circumstances. Owyhee Reservoir is now about 18 percent full.
Chamberlin said growers intend to avoid planting high-water crops such as corn, potatoes, sugar beets and onions. He anticipates a lot of barley and spring wheat will be planted and has heard from growers that quality cereal seed is in short supply throughout the area.
He said many growers who have no supplemental river water plan to conserve by leaving large acreages unplanted. He said alfalfa growers will likely avoid irrigating their first cutting and focus their water on the second cutting.
“I suspect for insurance purposes, some will plant as they normally do … and hope for timely showers and see what is going to happen after that,” Chamberlin said.
Natural Resources Conservation Service water supply specialist Ron Abramovich said the Owyhee Basin received 150 percent of its normal February precipitation, but it’s snowpack is still only 52 percent of normal. For the water year, which began Oct. 1, the basin has received 69 percent of normal moisture. The basin’s Mud Flat snow survey site, located at an elevation of 5,700 feet, has already lost its snowpack, earlier than any year since 1981.
Since 1981, Abramovich said there’s only been one year, 1992, with a smaller total water supply than officials are predicting for the basin this year.