The 2015 Water Year ended with significant temperature and precipitation anomalies across Idaho. Compared to the 30 year normal, temperatures were several degrees (°F) above average for the majority of the state. Below normal precipitation occurred across the most of Idaho, but most notable was the lack of snow during the winter and early spring. Warm temperatures combined with low snowpack set the stage for early runoff, with many areas losing their snow 4 to 6 weeks early. April 1st snow water equivalent (SWE) rankings were within the driest 5 percent for the majority of SNOTEL sites. The early runoff caused streamflows to peak well ahead of normal in most basins, and flows receded to levels typical of late summer as early as June and July. Record low streamflows were experienced at many stream gauges over the course of the summer.
Idaho was part of the much talked about record or near record warmth that dominated the western states during the 2015 Water Year. Average temperatures were well above normal throughout the state, particularly during the core winter months. Most of central and southern Idaho experienced positive temperature anomalies of 4 to 8 degrees (°F) during the January through March period, with pockets of southern Idaho averaging as much as 10 degrees above normal. Winter temperature anomalies weren’t quite as large (generally 3 to 6 degrees above normal) across northern Idaho, but still had a major impact on the snowpack. Daily temperature records were set at many SNOTEL sites over the course of the winter, for both daytime maximum temperatures, and nighttime high minimum temperatures. The relatively warm weather also brought an early start to the spring snowmelt and runoff.
Precipitation favored northern and central Idaho, and portions of southwest Idaho during the first quarter of the 2015 Water Year. The first significant snowfall of the season impacted the Boise area the second week of November, dumping 5 to 9 inches of snow across the Treasure Valley. Dry conditions dominated most of the state from mid winter into early spring, except across the Panhandle Region where normal to above normal precipitation was the rule. Very dry conditions prevailed across central and northern Idaho during the spring, while normal to above normal precipitation occurred across southeast Idaho. The Idaho Panhandle continued to suffer from dry conditions through the summer months while most of central and southern Idaho received near normal or above normal precipitation.
Warm temperatures and rain combined to take it’s toll on Idaho’s snowpack during the winter and spring. A number of storm systems brought significant precipitation to the state, but high snow levels resulted in more rain instead of snow, particularly at mid and low elevations. In fact, low elevation snowpack was absent or just a fraction of normal across much of the state through the winter. By February, the snowpack was already ripe and ready to melt in some areas. Overall snowpack across Idaho typically peaks the beginning of April, but April 1 of 2015 was marked by snow water equivalent (SWE) percentile rankings in the driest 5 percent, and many SNOTEL sites were at new record low SWE. Snowpack melted 4 to 6 weeks ahead of normal at many SNOTEL locations.
Above normal temperatures led to early runoff of Idaho’s snowpack. This produced well above normal streamflows for much of the state during late winter and early spring. Peak flows occurred much earlier than normal, and were lower than normal as the snowpack gradually melted. Low flows normally seen in late summer and early fall were occurring by June and July in many areas. Daily and monthly record low flows occurred at several USGS streamgages from late spring through summer.
Snowmelt and runoff timing led to higher fill rates early in the season. Not all reservoir systems were able to fill though, especially the smaller reservoirs in southern Idaho. Warm and dry weather led to declining reservoir inflows and higher demand for irrigation water earlier in the year. Most large federal reservoirs across southern Idaho filled or came close to filling, but strong irrigation demand throughout the warm season left below average carry-over supplies.
Long-term drought continued to plague southern Idaho through the 2015 Water Year. Drought conditions expanded across central and northern Idaho, spurred on by persistent above normal temperatures, below normal precipitation, and poor snowpack.