Upper Snake Recharge Expands,
by John O'Connell
The Bureau of Reclamation has suspended a policy prohibiting winter water in canals that draw
from Palisades Reservoir in order to facilitate expanded aquifer recharge with floodwater releases.
IDAHO FALLS, Idaho -- The Bureau of Reclamation is expanding winter aquifer recharge in the Upper Snake River system, though the watershed's once strong snowpack has dropped to near normal levels due to continued dry weather in February.
Lack of precipitation for consecutive months has pushed other Idaho basins further below average.
Due to an ample carryover of storage water, however, even an average snowpack has necessitated that BOR increase flows below Palisades Reservoir from 900 cubic feet per second a month ago to present levels of 2,700 cubic feet per second to free storage space for spring runoff.
Seeking to put those flood-control releases to good use, BOR recently approved a request by canal companies to temporarily suspend its winter water savings contract. The provision requires canal companies that draw water from Palisades to shut off for 150 days through winter in order to build up storage.
Steve Howser, manager of Aberdeen-Springfield Canal Co., and other water managers requested the suspension in order to conduct aquifer recharge without fear of violating the policy. Howser commenced with recharging 170 cubic feet per second on Feb. 21, immediately following the suspension.
The state, which holds a 1,200 cubic feet per second recharge water right, pays canal companies fees to allow water to seep into the aquifer through their unlined systems, or to spill it into aquifer injection facilities.
Howser hasn't run water through his system during winter since the 1960s, prior to the implementation of the winter water savings contract.
"Here we are in a situation in February where we have almost perfect conditions to accomplish some recharge," said Howser, who runs recharge water 30 miles through his canal until it's released into an operational spill facility.
Lyle Swank, watermaster over the Upper Snake district, said a half dozen larger canal companies on the Henry's Fork above Palisades and below the reservoir, including the Great Feeder Canals near Ririe, are participating in expanded recharge.
Swank plans to send his staff to verify canal companies are accurately reporting their recharge diversions.
Idaho Department of Water Resources Water Planning Bureau manager Brian Patton said 50,670 acre feet has already been recharged this winter by canal companies drawing from Milner Reservoir, and not covered by the winter storage contract.
Ron Abramovich, water supply specialist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, said through Feb. 26, snowpack in Henry's Fork had dropped from above average to 93 percent of normal, and the Upper Snake above Palisades had dropped from well above normal to 105 percent of average.
Eastern Idaho's low-elevation mountains, including the Willow, Blackfoot and Portneuf ranges, dropped to 79 percent of normal. February precipitation has been just 27 percent of normal in the Owyhee Basin, which now has 45 percent of normal snowpack. Bruneau Basin snowpack is just 35 percent of normal.
Abramovich said the Big Wood, Little Wood, Big Lost, Little Lost, Salmon Falls and Oakley systems are at three-quarters of normal snowpack and could face irrigation shortages. The Treasure Valley supply outlook still remains adequate.
"Patterns could be setting up for more promising weather in March. That's what I'm seeing right now," Abramovich said.
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