Idaho’s ongoing drought halts some irrigation months early

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Water managers are cutting off irrigation flows to farmers in Idaho’s Wood River basin and wildlife officials are scrambling to move fish to safer waters as a severe drought grips the area.

Farmers got 27 days of water this year before the Magic Reservoir reached 4% capacity, prompting the Big Wood Canal Company to shut off the water Thursday. The reservoir feeds about 36,000 acres (14,500 hectares) of farmland.

This is the canal company’s shortest irrigation season since at least 1977. Typically, the dam isn’t closed until mid-September.

But roughly 80% of Idaho is experiencing drought conditions, and more than a third of the state is in a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The most intense drought area in the state is in Blaine and Custer counties, and the region is in its second year of exceptionally dry weather.

With the dam gates shut, the flows on the Richfield Canal and Big Wood River are “functionally de-watered,” officials with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game said. That means the amount of water flowing through the Big Wood River becomes too shallow and warm to support trout.

“We’re in scramble mode when (the canal company) made the decision this week,” Terry Thompson, of Fish and Game’s Magic Valley Regional office, said Friday.

The department plans to electro-fish some sections of the canal this week to remove fish and restock them elsewhere. The method involves applying an electric current to the water to stun and collect fish.

“Right now if they pass muster from the standpoint of fish health, we’ll be moving them down to the Bell Rapids in the Snake River by Hagerman,” Thompson said.

Anyone else with a valid fishing license can gather fish in certain sections of the river using any method except firearms, chemicals, explosives or electric current. Limits on the number of trout that can be harvested have also been lifted.

“The goal is to get the fish in that situation out of there and take them home and put them in the freezer versus dying when the water is gone,” Thompson said.

Carl Pendleton, board president of the Big Wood Canal Company and an alfalfa farmer in Shoshone, said the company struggled to get to 30 days of irrigation.

A water shortage like this one can make or break some operations, Pendleton said, prompting a “total change in the way they run their operations or extreme financial impact in those that are going to hang on.”

Pendleton sold his cattle in the spring because he knew he wouldn’t have pasture for them. He was expecting to get just one cut of alfalfa instead of the usual three, but even the one crop was stressed from the lack of water, he said, lowering yields.

A similar situation is playing out near the California-Oregon border as drought conditions worsen across the U.S. West. Federal regulators last month shut off irrigation water to hundreds of farmers from a key reservoir and said they would not send extra water to dying salmon downstream.

In Idaho, snowpack melted about three weeks early in the Big Wood Basin, according to the federal Natural Resources Conservation Services. That’s a trend scientists have said will likely intensify with climate change, and could make water supply less predictable.

At the beginning of June, there was about 22,000 acre-feet of water storage, and the reservoir was 11% full. The early June water measurement has only been lower than 2021 levels once since 1917 — in 1992, according to the agency. Still, in that year, farmers received more water in late June.

“The problem is that we went into this last winter with a very low reservoir,” Thompson said. “Then there was very little gain in water levels over the winter and spring.”