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The darkest red—which now sits over most of Blaine County—represents “exceptional” drought, NOAA’s worst classification. The surrounding red denotes “extreme” drought.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s U.S. Drought Monitor upgraded Blaine County’s drought status from “extreme” to “exceptional” last week, bumping most of the county from the NOAA’s second-worst drought classification to its worst.

In May, most of Blaine County was experiencing “severe” drought and only small portions of northeastern Blaine and southern Custer Counties, including Trail Creek Summit and the Big Lost drainage, were listed under “extreme” drought.

By June 10—the day Magic Dam shut—the bull’s eye of the drought had intensified from “extreme” to “exceptional,” shifting in color accordingly from red to crimson.

Following the early end to irrigation season, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack officially designated Blaine County a “primary natural disaster area” along with Lincoln County, including the latter because of its dependence on Big Wood River flows.

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Fish rescues—like this one conducted near Bellevue by Trout Unlimited earlier this month—are increasingly commonplace as portions of the Big Wood River dry up.  

“[Vilsack’s] natural disaster designation allows the [Farm Service Agency] to extend much-needed emergency credit to producers recovering from natural disasters,” the USDA stated late last month. “Emergency loans can be used to meet various recovery needs, including the replacement of essential items such as equipment or livestock, reorganization of a farming operation or the refinance of certain debts.”

By July 13, the scope of the drought in central Idaho had expanded substantially, according to NOAA data. The “exceptional” area had swept north into Custer County, east into Butte County, south into the entire Wood River Valley and west into Camas County. The underlying “extreme” drought area also grew to cover the northern tip of Blaine County.

On July 20, Blaine County’s “exceptional” drought area spanned from Craters of the Moon National Monument to Easley Peak and included all cities in the Wood River Valley.

Local impacts of the drought this summer have already included widespread crop failure, dire water shortages, low river flows, considerable fire danger and wildlife seeking refuge in greener residential areas.

“Weeks of unrelenting triple-digit heat in southern Idaho have compounded the drought situation, causing higher water evaporation and increased demand for meager water supplies,” Gov. Brad Little stated on July 9.

Since the start of this month, the Big Wood River in Ketchum has consecutively hit its lowest-ever recorded flows for each date, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. In June, the river hit its lowest-ever recorded flows 27 of 30 days.

Big Wood River flows recorded in Ketchum and Hailey this month and last month shed some light on the area’s worsening drought. During the first weekend in June, the Big Wood in Ketchum reached 43% of its normal volume flow rate, at 276 cubic feet per second, and the Big Wood in Hailey reached 55%, at 898 cubic feet per second.

Over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, however, the Ketchum USGS gauge recorded an average flow of 66 cubic feet per second—less than one-third of the rate typically recorded during those dates. That same weekend, the Big Wood in Hailey was flowing at 146 cubic feet per second, just 22% of its normal flow rate.

Precipitation, too, has been at a sustained record low since June 15. On Tuesday, the county’s six SNOTEL stations—at Chocolate Gulch, Dollarhide Summit, Galena Summit, Deadend Canyon, Enid Gulch and Park Creek Campground—recorded 15.7 inches of accumulated precipitation for this water year, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The previous minimum accumulated precipitation record for that day was 16.9 inches, recorded in 1994.

In typical water years, the Big Wood Basin will have accumulated about 27 inches of precipitation by July 20.

F&G deems fishing closure “biologically unnecessary”

Trout in the Wood River Valley are facing grim conditions this summer due to the drought and recent heat waves, according to a Friday report from Joe Kozfkay, Idaho Department of Fish and Game state fisheries manager. But, he said, fishing isn’t likely to contribute much to that die off.

“While some heat-stressed fish will die from angling-related mortality, basing fishing closures on reduced risk to a relatively small portion of the local trout population is unlikely to change the overall numbers in the near or long term,” Kozfkay stated. “Above-average water temperatures may increase natural mortality rates for trout as they are forced into completing longer-distance migrations to seek out colder waters or succumb to stressful environmental conditions.”

Local fishing guides and trout advocates urge anglers to closely monitor water temperatures on the river, and call it a day when it gets too warm.

“Plan on getting your fishing done early and plan to take the afternoon and evening off once water temperatures hit 67 degrees,” Bret Bishop, a guide for Ketchum’s Silver Creek Outfitters, wrote in his weekly fishing report. “As always, please land fish quickly and keep them in the water while releasing.”

On Thursday, July 22, Fish and Game will host a public meeting in Hailey on trout management during drought conditions, explaining why the department will not be implementing fishing closures this summer. The public meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at the Hailey Community Campus Performing Arts Theater.

Email the writer: ejones@mtexpress.com

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