21-06-16 drought map.jpg

The darkest red—which sits over part of northern Blaine County—represents “exceptional” drought, NOAA’s worst classification. The red that encompasses the middle of the county denotes “extreme” drought.

The Big Wood Canal Co. shut off Magic Reservoir at noon Thursday, June 10, putting an exceptionally early stop to irrigation season for hundreds of growers in Shoshone, Richfield and Dietrich.

On Thursday, the reservoir was at around 4% capacity, the canal company reported.

Magic Dam was shut off due to low snowpack this past winter, low carryover from last summer’s drought and ongoing extreme drought conditions. The dam usually isn’t shut off until mid-to-late September; last year it shut off Sept. 1.

Thursday’s shutoff capped this irrigation season at 26 days—the second-shortest season on record with the Big Wood Canal Co., according to Carl Pendleton, the company’s board president and an alfalfa farmer based in Shoshone.

“One year in the early ’90s yielded only 21 days,” Pendleton said.

Growers who depend on Magic Reservoir normally get over 140 irrigation days. According to Silver Creek-area farmer Larry Schoen, also a former Blaine County commissioner, hay farmers south of Magic are expecting one or two hay cuttings this year as opposed to last year’s three or four. The hay this year is also unusually dry.

“The majority of people I’ve talked to are cutting late and going for quantity over quality. They know they’re not going to get more than one or two cuttings,” Schoen said. “I can’t think of anyone who is planning on three cuttings.

“Last summer was better because the reservoir was fairly full due to carryover. This year there’s none of that. Magic is empty, and we’ve barely had any rain.”

Fish salvage ordered

Shortly after news of the dam shutoff broke Thursday afternoon, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game ordered a public fish salvage for the Big Wood River below the dam and the Richfield Canal diversion.

Shutting the gate “functionally dewaters” the Big Wood, Fish and Game said, meaning trout below Magic Dam face nearly certain death when flows decrease and water temperatures rise.

Starting Thursday, bag and possession limits are removed from the railroad trestle downstream of the dam to the state Highway 75 bridge. The order also includes the Richfield Canal from its diversion point from the Big Wood to where it meets the Little Wood River. Anyone with a valid 2021 fishing license can salvage fish using any method besides chemicals, electric current or firearms, according to Fish and Game.

Ed Northen, a member of Trout Unlimited’s local Hemingway chapter, said Thursday that he was evaluating the feasibility of conducting a fish rescue below the dam.

“With the drought we will most likely have a year of many fish rescues and most of these will be on short notice,” he added on Friday. “[Volunteers] can anticipate getting an email for an opportunity to participate in a fish rescue earlier than normal this summer.”

During last summer’s drought period, the chapter rescued over 14,000 trout stranded in shallow pools and returned the fish to the Big Wood River.

Drought intensifies as fire danger soars

Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor, a federal monitoring system overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, upgraded most of Blaine County’s drought status from “severe” to “extreme” and northeastern Blaine County from “extreme” to “exceptional.”

“Exceptional” is NOAA’s worst drought classification.

Local impacts of the drought have included sparse vegetation, unharvested crops, reduced cattle herds, low river levels and increased fire danger, according to the Drought Monitor.

As “high” fire danger continued in the Sawtooth National Forest this week and the National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for southeastern Idaho, including the forest’s Minidoka Ranger District, the Wood River Fire Protection District announced a ban on open burning Monday. Bonfires and burn barrels are no longer permitted in the district due to critical fire weather conditions.

Small solid-fuel warming or cooking fires on private property are still allowed if they are set back from combustibles and “contained in an approved portable outdoor fireplace, constantly attended and provided with approved means of extinguishment,” the district stated.

On Tuesday, Blaine County’s six SNOTEL stations—at Chocolate Gulch, Dollarhide Summit, Galena Summit, Deadend Canyon, Enid Gulch and Park Creek Campground—recorded 15.2 inches of accumulated precipitation for this water year, about 59% of normal, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Since last Wednesday, the Big Wood River in Ketchum has hit its lowest-ever recorded flows for the date every day, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. On Tuesday, the Ketchum USGS gauge recorded an average flow of 156 cubic feet per second, breaking last spring’s June 15 record of 188 cfs. The river on that date typically flows at about 556 cfs in Ketchum.

Email the writer: ejones@mtexpress.com

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