By JOHN O'CONNELL
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter signed drought emergency declarations May 14 for Fremont, Lincoln, Butte and Blaine counties, according an Idaho Department of Water Resources official.
IDWR Compliance Bureau Chief Tim Luke said the initial drought declarations of the season have come earlier than last summer, which was also dry, and current conditions would support emergencies in several other counties, especially in the state's southern region.
"I anticipate getting quite a few more," Luke said. "I think it's similar or worse than last year, depending on the area."
Fremont and Blaine counties were also among the nine counties in which emergencies were declared last summer.
Luke said state drought emergency declarations enable producers to expedite temporary transfers of water rights to finish crops where water is short.
"We don't have to advertise (transfers), and we can turn them around pretty quick," Luke said.
State declarations also carry weight for counties seeking federal assistance for drought impacts, he said.
"The southwest corner of the state is much worse than last year," Luke said. "As you move further east, it starts getting a little better, but all of those basins are below normal."
Luke said few producers in counties with emergency declarations took advantage of expedited temporary water rights transfers last year, when annual precipitation was close to normal throughout most of the state, but hot weather melted snow about a month early.
"As you got to the middle part of the season stream flows and levels were well below normal," Luke said.
Jay Breidenbach, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boise, said his city has received 3.2 inches of rain since Jan. 1, down from 5.7 inches during a normal year. The water equivalent in snowpack in the surrounding mountains has been 70 percent of normal, he said.
He said the Boise River system is running at 70 percent of capacity, the Payette River system is 90 percent of capacity and the critical Upper Snake River system is 72 percent of capacity.
"The outlook for this summer looks like a continuation of this dry, warm pattern we're in," Breidenbach said. "Areas that are in drought now probably aren't going to see much relief."
Lincoln County, located in south-central Idaho, is starting the irrigation season at a considerable deficit because it's served by the Magic Reservoir, which was drained last fall to accommodate repairs to a leaky dam.
"If somebody had only the Big Wood River water (stored in the reservoir), they would ... not have adequate water for growing potatoes and sugar beets, and most likely not corn either," said Christi Falen, University of Idaho Extension educator from Lincoln County.
Falen said water supplies are forecast to run out by late July or early August.
U of I Extension educator Lauren Hunter, of Blaine County, said her irrigators expect to have 90 to 100 days of water and are bracing for earlier harvest dates and lower yields. Hunter said some growers are considering planting fall cover crops after harvest to fix nitrogen, limit erosion and conserve soil moisture.