Big Idaho snowpack has water managers pleased and worried
Idaho has so much snow that water is already being released from some reservoirs for flood control and Idaho Power has halted most of its cloud-seeding operations.
"It's just an amazing year," said Ron Abramovich, a water supply specialist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service. "I don't think anybody is talking about shortages this year."
Water managers and experts meeting Wednesday in Boise as part of the Idaho Department of Water Resources' Water Supply Committee say there will be enough water this year to meet the needs of cities, farmers and hydropower producers.
One of the big questions at the meeting, however, was what to expect with the spring snowmelt. Water managers said they would prefer a gradual warming of weather heading into spring and a gradual snowmelt. Most feared is a warm spell with rain on snow that could cause rapid melting.
Idaho's snowpack in early February is above average in every river basin in southern Idaho but decreases moving north to somewhat below average in most areas above the Salmon River.
Experts say this year's winter in Idaho has been unusual for the amount of snow in lower elevations — 500 percent above average in some areas — that has caused dozens of buildings to collapse.
Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter has declared states of emergency in eight counties due to snowstorms this winter, including Boundary County in northern Idaho earlier this week where heavy snow is causing problems. Elsewhere, flooding is starting to be a concern.
"We're watching it by the hour," said Otter spokesman Jon Hanian on Thursday. "In some of the troubled areas they're taking steps now to make sure we're ahead of the curve."
In south-central Idaho, the Twin Falls County sheriff's office said a canal breached and has caused some flooding and road closures on Thursday. And Interstate 86, a major route in eastern Idaho, remained closed on Thursday due to water on the roadway.
"It's shaping up to be a pretty intense spring across Idaho," said Troy Lundquist, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, noting more wet weather is expected across the state through Friday. "I think spring is pretty unpredictable. Near normal conditions is about the best guestimate at this point."
Mel Kunkel of Idaho Power said the company had stopped most of its cloud seeding operations after snow levels reached a certain point or local authorities declared flood warnings.
"We have done a fairly robust year of cloud seeding," he said, but noted the only area where operations are continuing is in the Island Park area in eastern Idaho.
Idaho Power generates most of its electricity through hydroelectric projects, and Kunkel said it appears reservoirs in the company's system will fill.
Meanwhile, the Idaho Office of Emergency Management has sent out teams to assess snow-caused damage, including roof collapses. In Payette County in western Idaho, officials say $1.8 million has been spent removing snow from roads and buildings, but damage estimates are still being gathered for structures that collapsed and the value of their contents.