Why The Snake River In Idaho Runs Dry For Miles

Jun 17, 2013

Water is being diverted for agriculture at Milner Dam, which means the Snake River is running at low levels until Twin Falls.
Credit Frank Kovalchek / Flickr Creative Commons

If you were to go to the banks of the Snake River downstream of Milner Dam near Burley, you wouldn’t see much more than a trickle of water. That’s because the federal Bureau of Reclamation shut off the river flow on June 4.

For at least 25 miles, there isn’t enough water for a kayaker to paddle through. Idaho Power runs the hydroelectric plant at the dam, and says the zero flow will impact its operations through late July.  

So where is the water above the dam going? According to Mike Beus at the Bureau of Reclamation, farmers and ranchers with irrigation rights get first priority. Beus says the bureau is carrying out the policy from the Idaho Comprehensive State Water Plan.

But the hydrologist says the Snake River below Milner Dam has run dry at some point every year since at least 1907. This year, the zero flows happened to be earlier than usual, and farmers are using the water at high volumes for crops.

“We had an almost adequate snowpack but limited carryover storage," says Beus. "And just like last year the [irrigation] demand -- because of the warm weather and lack of precipitation -- came on early and are quite high for this season.”

Beus says the river starts to fill up once it reaches Shoshone and Twin Falls. He says by Buhl, the Snake is once again a normal flowing Idaho river.

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