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Dry spring could mean lost crops for East Idaho farmers

snake river june 2021

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (KIFI) - A dryer than normal spring for East Idaho could mean trouble for area farmers, especially potato farmers.

“We thought we were going to be off to a good water supply this year, but since April, May, June, it’s been very dry, extremely hot. When it’s hot like this, the crops need more water, there’s more water evaporating from the reservoirs,” said Tony Olenichak, the water master for Water District 1 in Idaho Falls.

Due to a lower than average snow pack this year, Olenichak said he may have to cut the natural flowing water from the Snake River into area channels early, which farmers use to irrigate their crops.

“We’re talking about all the people who depend on farming and diverting surface water from the Snake River, Henry’s Fork or some of those other tributaries,” Olenichak said.

Once natural flow rights are cut, farmers will have to rely on water stored in reservoirs to irrigate their crops, which could affect hundreds of people.

“Typically if we fill the reservoir system we can make it through the year. This year, we were a little short of filling the reservoir system, so there are going to be some people who run out of water,” Olenichak said.

Grain crops don’t require much water after mid-summer, so Olenichak expects those crops to survive. But he's concerned for potato crops, which need more water towards the end of the irrigation season.

“Potato farmers are the ones who are really concerned when we have short water years like this. If a canal runs out of water before the end of August or mid-September, that may not be enough to finish out the potato crop,” Olenichak said.

Farmers who have water rights at the longer established reservoirs will likely make it through the year, Olenichak said. 

“It’s the people who only have storage in Palisades Reservoir, which is one of the last reservoirs to be built. Some of the space holders at that reservoir have very little storage allocated to their supply,” Olenichak said.

Palisades Reservoir may look full right now, but much of that water is allocated to other storage reservoirs that run downstream, like American Falls Reservoir. Later in the summer, water will be released from Palisades and recaptured in American Falls.

“The American Falls Reservoir today is only 48% full, but that’s because there’s a lot of water that belongs to the American Falls baseholders is physically being held in the Palisades. It’s the practical thing to do: catch water up high and then we have less of a risk of losing any water out the end of our system,” Olenichak said.

This spring reminds Olenichak of 2007 and 2016: two dry seasons that caused trouble for farmers and firefighters.

“At this point, unless we get some summer rain which is unlikely, it looks like some people aren’t going to make it through this year because of the lack of water,” Olenichak said.

Article Topic Follows: Idaho

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Emma Iannacone

Emma is a reporter for Local News 8 and KIDK Eyewitness News 3.


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