Last year, many of Idaho’s irrigated farmers fared well despite dry conditions because snow and rainfall the year before left reservoirs full. This year the picture is different. There’s less carryover — the term water managers use to describe the water that remains in reservoirs from the previous year — and dry conditions persist.
Farmer Jim Tiede, who grows sugar beets, potatoes, corn and wheat on 3,000 acres near American Falls, says he’s planning for a lower than usual water allocation from the Aberdeen-Springfield Canal.
“We changed some cropping rotations around, and put shorter water use crops on the canal to better utilize and conserve the water that we do have,” Tiede says. “We moved some sugar beets off of the canal, and planted grain down there to ensure we’d have enough water to finish that crop.”
Tiede is lucky: he also has deep wells that draw water from the Snake River Aquifer. Others nearby don’t have that luxury.
“There are some farmers here in the valley that just have surface water rights, and I know they’re concerned about having enough to complete the crop,” Tiede explains. “Some of those guys, I have heard, have cut back on on their potatoes and beets because of that.”
Potatoes and beets are more profitable, but they also have higher input costs, and need a steady supply of water.
While farmers make adjustments, water managers say it’s too early to know whether and to what extent below normal snow and rainfall may affect Idaho agriculture this season.
“The next few weeks are very important,” says Mike Beus, a water operations manager with the Bureau of Reclamation. “Additional precipitation is really critical right now.”
“If you look at all the reservoirs, the entire system is at 77 percent,” explains Paul Patterson, a University of Idaho agricultural economist based in Idaho Falls.
He says it’s hard to offer up broad predictions for a state with such varied topography and growing conditions. Whether farmers fare well or poorly or somewhere between depends not only on current water storage levels and spring rain, but on location, and water rights.
“There are some concerns, but it’s not time to panic,” Patterson says. “And realistically, there’s not a whole lot people can do.”
Idaho farmers and ranchers generated a record $7.7 billion last year, according to a University of Idaho report. Net farm income grew by 5 percent from 2011 to 2012.