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Drought Brings Less Than A Month Of Water For Magic Reservoir Farmers

Magic Reservoir holds 191,000 acre feet of water, but before the dam opened for the start of irrigation season, it only had about 45,000 acre feet.
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio News
Magic Reservoir, shown in early May, holds 191,000 acre feet of water, but before the dam opened for the start of irrigation season, it only had about 45,000 acre feet.

Farmers who rely on Magic Reservoir for their irrigation supply only got 27 days of water this year after the Big Wood Canal Company shut off the water Thursday.

That’s the shortest water season for Magic Reservoir users that the canal company could identify in records that go back to 1977. The median number of water days for the reservoir since that date is 143 days. That means water is usually flowing until mid-September.

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

“A water shortage as severe as this year make or break some operations,” he said. “Total change in the way they run their operations or extreme financial impact in those that are going to hang on.”

For Pendleton, that meant selling his cattle in the spring because he knew he wouldn’t have pasture for them. He was expecting to get one cut of alfalfa instead of three, and that happened, but even the one crop was stressed due to a lack of early season water, so the yields weren’t as good.

About 80% of Idaho is seeing some level of drought conditions, and 35% of the state is experiencing a “severe” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The bulls-eye of the most intense drought area — in Blaine and Custer counties — has expanded, and part of it has escalated from “extreme” to “exceptional.”

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

On Thursday, the day the canal company shut off the water, the reservoir was about 4% full. 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 NRCS. Still, in that year, farmers received more water in late June.

The Big Wood Canal Company said it’s not likely the water will turn back on this year. There would need to be a lot of precipitation, and NRCS predicts drought conditions will continue, and could even intensify.

Ponds that farmers might have on their property will likely dry up in the next week, Pendleton said, and the year’s harvest will probably be complete within two weeks.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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