Will this year's snowpack bring us out of the drought? - East Idaho News

Will this year’s snowpack bring us out of the drought?

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IDAHO FALLS – Mountain snowfall and unusually cold temperatures early in the season make this an above-average winter, but what happens over the next several months will determine if there will be any drought relief.

That’s what officials are saying after looking at weather trends since the beginning of October.

Tim Axford, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pocatello, told EastIdahoNews.com on Tuesday that the amount of snow that’s fallen in the area since the first snowstorm on Oct. 22 puts the Snake River Valley at 128% of normal, or 28% above average, this winter.

“That’s good news, in terms of drought and water supply,” Axford says.

Across the border in Wyoming at the headwaters of the Snake River, snowpack levels are only a little above average at 105%.

From Oct. 1 through Jan. 24, Axford says temperatures throughout eastern Idaho have been one to three degrees below normal. In November, the warmest day in Pocatello was in the 20s, compared to the coldest day, which was 1 degree.

Overall, Axford says the average temperature for the entire month was 6.5 degrees below average. December was a little warmer but was still 2 degrees below average.

This cooling trend is similar for Idaho Falls, Rexburg and surrounding communities.

The combination of early snowstorms and unusually cold temperatures is a huge benefit to the drought Idaho’s been experiencing, Axford says.

“It means that the snow that fell in November … has been able to stick around. Typically what we see is an early season snow that hits the mountains in October or November and then it warms up, and we lose it all. That’s what happened last year,” he says. “For us to be able to lock in that moisture is a good sign for the winter going forward.”

Click here to view a map of snow water equivalent percentages in southern Idaho.

But just over a month since winter officially began, it’s still too early to tell what’s in store for this summer.

Tony Olenichak, the watermaster for the Upper Snake River Water District — which includes the American Falls Reservoir, Palisades, Ririe, Island Park, Henrys Lake, and Jackson Lake — said snowpack levels at some sites are below average.

And the amount of water storage in the district is currently 90,000 acre feet below what it was at this time last year, which puts the reservoirs at 39% capacity overall.

“Last year on this date, it was 41% full,” Olenichak says.

How full the reservoirs are in the summer hinges, in large part, on the late winter snowstorms and spring rains. Olenichak says there was very little snow accumulation from mid-January to April last year, but May and June were unusually wet.

If March and April are dry this year, Olenichak says “we could be in worse shape than we were last year.”

“The Natural Resources Conversation Service is estimating about 120% of normal snowfall (over the next few months). I think that’s a ballpark (number),” he says. “We need above-average precipitation and snowfall to fill the reservoir system and get out of this drought cycle.”

Upper snake water district
Upper Snake River Water District levels, as of Jan. 25. | Courtesy Bureau of Reclamation

Though it remains to be seen what the weather is going to look like for the second half of winter, Axford and Olenichak remain hopeful that it will be a good water year.

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Meanwhile, a winter weather advisory is in effect until Saturday at 5 p.m. The NWS is forecasting several inches of snow in some areas. Axford also expects a weekend cooldown with temperatures dropping into the teens, which he says will only help lock in more snow in the mountains and build up the water supply.

“The Upper Snake, as a whole, looks to be pretty good right now. If we continue to have pretty active weather, we should end winter near normal or above normal, which would only be good news for our drought conditions in east Idaho,” says Axford.