Experts hopeful snowpack helps buck Idaho’s drought conditions

By Carolyn Komatsoulis; Idaho Press

Mores Creek and the Robie Creek region is seen from the road above the canyon east of Boise on Feb. 9, 2022. The last two years have seen drier-than-normal springs. Jake King/Idaho Press

Love was in the air on Tuesday, and so was snow, at least in Boise and the Treasure Valley overnight.

It’s likely that the state could buck the trend of drier consecutive La Niña winters, something that hasn’t happened since the 1950s in the part of Idaho south of the Salmon River. But that doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed.

“We’re off to a nice snowy day today and we should have gotten some decent precip up in the mountains last night,” said David Hoekema, Idaho Department of Water Resources hydrologist. “We’re likely to do better than last year, but you never know quite what you’re going to get just based on snowpack alone.”

That has been all too true for the last two springs, both outliers. In spring 2021, hot and dry weather led to lower-than-normal runoff. Farmers had to irrigate more because of the heat and pulled from the reservoirs earlier than normal.

Last year, storms in December and early January brought cautious optimism. But that hope turned to concern when Boise experienced its third-driest January-through-March. Then a cooler and wetter spring altered projections again. Runoff last year was over a million acre feet, which did help. By June, reservoirs were full.

“That’s kind of what helped us recover,” Hoekema said.

Snowpack is either at or above normal across the whole state, according to Erin Whorton, a hydrologist with the National Resources Conservation Service. The only exception is in the Kootenai and Pend Oreille areas.

However, the snowpack percentages declined across the whole state because of a dry January.

Northern Idaho in particular has seen the driest conditions. Kootenai’s basin is the only one in drought condition, though Pend Oreille, Priest and Spokane are drier than normal.

Also, while snowpack looks good, the total precipitation is looking somewhat different.

“Drier soils could be impacting our snowpack runoff efficiency come spring. We’ll have to see how it goes. It’s definitely something to keep an eye on … but a lot of some of that runoff could be absorbed more into these dry soils,” Whorton said. “I find myself in a little bit of a dilemma because the snowpack overall looks really good, but I think because we’ve had a couple dry years I don’t feel quite as much optimism as I should.”

While this is the third La Niña winter in a row, the area should transition to neutral by spring. Basically, the El Niño-Southern Oscillation is a climate pattern which has two extreme phases, according to the National Weather Service: El Niño, which involves ocean surface warming in part of the Pacific, and La Niña, which is the opposite. Neutral involves more average sea-surface temperatures.

In Boise, there’s been almost 6 inches of precipitation so far — pretty similar to last year at this time, according to Troy Lindquist with the National Weather Service. McCall and Lewiston are also pretty close to normal, and Idaho Falls is a little above normal.

“I look at Twin Falls, it just seems like each year they just keep getting worse and worse,” Lindquist said.

The next few days there won’t be too much precipitation, but the chances will go up over the weekend and early next week. But in the next six to 10 days, the area will have a better chance of below-normal temperatures and above-normal precipitation.

“So I don’t think our climate experts are seeing anything that would indicate no, or very little precipitation at this point,” Lindquist said.

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