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Water Worries

Dwindling snowpack raises concerns


After weeks of shoveling driveways several times a day and mornings spent sliding down busy roads, it's hard to believe that a lack of snow could be a problem. But the snow gods are a fickle group, and now the valley is facing the threat of a summer water shortage if precipitation doesn't pick up.

Snowpack in the Boise Basin has dropped to roughly 77 percent of normal after a dry weather pattern settled over the valley in mid-January. While it may seem early in the season to be worrying about water, that's just what hydrologists are starting to do.

"[It] is a concern, and we're watching it closely," said Steve Burrell, technical hydrologist with the Idaho Department of Water Resources. "In the long term, if we don't have normal precipitation from here on out, we will be looking at an increased chance of [water] shortages."

Those shortages could mean decreased river flows across the region, including on the Boise River. Any shortage would also mean problems for irrigators, especially if a hot summer increases demand.

After a flurry of storms in December and early January, which had snow falls being measured in feet at ski resorts across the Northwest, most mountains in the area have only seen a few scattered inches fall in recent weeks.

Apparently, that hasn't stopped skiers and snowboarders from heading up the hill to Bogus Basin Mountain Resort in near-record numbers. Bogus spokesperson Gretchen Anderson said that as of Feb. 3, the area had seen 179,138 skier visits compared to 176,369 at the same point last year.

So far, the area has seen roughly 114 inches of snow fall, and has a base depth of 42 inches. It's not much different further north, where Tamarack Resort has a base of 49 inches, Brundage is reporting a 45-inch base and Sun Valley Resort has 33 inches at the base with a season total of 111 inches.

But for those whose thoughts have already turned to warmer months and water-based recreation, the snowpack carries a heavier connotation than just a lack of powder turns. While the snowmelt has yet to begin, each percentage point down means less water in the rivers and lakes to paddle on or fish in come summer.

But there is a saving grace in the form of carryover from last year still sitting in area reservoirs. Burrell said the reservoirs are at or near normal levels for this time of year, despite the shortage of snowpack. Arrowrock Reservoir is holding 74 percent of its capacity, Anderson Ranch is at 63 percent and Lucky Peak Reservoir is at 36 percent of normal.

It's a bit of water afterglow after a year of normal precipitation.

"Our prayers really were answered last year," said Bob McLaughlin, public information officer for Water Resources.

The state entered the winter of 2007-2008 with the lowest amount of carryover water in 40 years, with some reservoirs down to just 10 percent of capacity, following several years in a row of below-normal snowpack.

Without the carryover from last year, the area would be facing "severe shortages," Burrell said.

The Boise River is flowing at near-normal levels for the season, but depending on runoff, it could be dropping by as much as 20 percent as the weather turns warmer.

This season's early precipitation, including a relatively wet fall, could also be a boon to runoff levels. The rain saturated the ground, essentially making up for depleted soil moisture levels, meaning less initial runoff will soak in, and more will end up in rivers.

In a switch of fortunes, the water situation is better further south, where the Bruneau Basin is 101 percent of normal after mid-season storms hammered the far southern end of the state.

"It's one of the highest snowpacks for the state," Burrell said. "Which is kind of strange for that area."

While the Boise area won't see direct impacts from the abundant snowpack in the south, it will help the lower Snake River dams, including the Hells Canyon Complex.

Predicting the weather has been a little harder than normal this year, thanks to unanticipated patterns in the Pacific Ocean.

The National Weather Service had been calling for neither a La Nina nor an El Nino to influence the weather systems this winter, but to the agency's surprise, a weak La Nina managed to form, meaning cold waters have gathered in the equatorial Pacific. That usually means cooler, wetter conditions in the Pacific Northwest, and while the cool part came true, it wasn't as wet as many had predicted.

"We would have expected more precipitation in January," said Jay Breibenbach, a hydrologist with the Weather Service's Boise office.

After mid-January's stagnant air—an inversion to most of us—finally broke, Breibenbach said forecasters had expected the previous stormy pattern to reestablish itself, but those storms have yet to show up.

The latest forecasts do call for some rain in the valleys and snow in the mountains. It's not the big storms hydrologists are hoping for, but Breibenbach is hopeful that it's just the start of a new pattern.

Officially, the long-range forecast calls for a higher probability of a cooler, wetter spring, with a wetter than normal February. Breibenbach added that since January is traditionally the coldest time of the year, more of that precipitation will be falling in the form of rain, at least in the valley.

It's good news for anyone hoping to get out on the state's lakes and rivers this summer.

"Every little drop helps," Burrell said.