Friday, November 19, 2004

Detailed water study promoted

Information could drive county's growth planning, future quality of life

Express Staff Writer

A comprehensive study of Blaine County's ground and surface water could take two years or longer to complete--if local municipalities choose to fund the study.

Local and regional water gurus and a handful of county residents gathered at the Old Blaine County Courthouse on Wednesday, Nov. 17 to examine the cost and potential benefits such a study would carry. The meeting, which featured two scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey in Boise, was organized by three Blaine County hydrologists.

"Hopefully we can see if we're maintaining our water so we can maintain our quality of life here," said Blaine County hydrologist Bruce Lium. "That's what we're really after."

Lee Brown, another Wood River Valley hydrologist, said the continued rapid pace of growth in the region is one of the primary reasons a comprehensive water study is needed.

"We are growing in leaps and bounds, but yet there are huge holes in our body of knowledge," Brown said. "Let's go to the big time, so to speak."

Over the years, various scientists and agencies have compiled between 20 and 25 studies of the Wood River Valley region's water quantity and quality, but Brown pointed out that the studies have not looked at the big picture.

"On one hand it's true, and on another it doesn't mean anything to me," he said. "What we really have are bits and pieces. If someone asks us: 'How much water do we have in the aquifer?' the answer is: 'We don't know.'"

Many of those who attended the meeting seemed to generally agree that a comprehensive water study could particularly help local planners and public officials manage the grown more responsibly.

"We have a bathtub full of anecdotal evidence in our corner. We have a thimble full of evidence that planners can actually use," said former Blaine County Commissioner Len Harlig. "We're going to run out of water someday, and we need to know what to do."

Harlig pointed out, however, that selling the concept to taxpayers might be a difficult task. It's a matter of restoring confidence in the studies.

"I think you've got a credibility problem--not you personally, but the issue," he said.

U.S. Geological Survey Water Quality Specialist Mark Hardy and Ground Water Specialist Jim Bartolino said the study would be a long-term endeavor and costly. Exact figures were pending further consideration by the two scientists.

"We can't come in and pay for the whole thing," Bartolino said. "Congress really doesn't fund us. For the most part, we have to go out and find studies."

Bartolino, who worked on a multi-million dollar study in Arizona that he said had a direct bearing on policy decisions there, stressed that the U.S Geological Survey is not a regulatory entity.

"We're purely a science agency," he said. "We have no vested interest."

Wednesday was the second of three days the two federal scientists spent in Blaine County examining past studies, talking with local water scientists and turning rocks over in the Big Wood River. Their first observation was that the ground and surface water in the area are the same resource.

"If you affect one, you're going to affect the other," Bartolino said.

Hardy observed that the riverine invertebrate community in the Big Wood River appears to be changing as the river winds its way through developed portions of the valley.

"You're getting more of different kinds," he said.

But, for the most part, the scientists were there to listen.

Wood River Land Trust Project Coordinator Stef Frenzl said his organization is undertaking a study of the big Wood River. Their findings so far indicate that water quantity is the limiting factor for healthy habitat for fish and other aquatic species.

"What are the ways in which it's possible to think about efficiency in the stream channel?" he asked.

Ketchum City Administrator Ron LeBlanc said his city is near build-out within its current limits, but he cited three annexations the city is considering in the foreseeable future. With the potential for additional population and additional demands on the water system, he said the city has a need for reliable data about water quantity in the upper valley.

Blaine County Commissioner-elect Tom Bowman said any such study has to be something that would be accessible to the average citizen.

"Many people aren't informed on this issue," he said. "If citizens knew the scientists are concerned, that could generate interest," he said. "You've got to make it mean something to Joe Schmo out on the street."

And Hailey Public Works Manager Ray Hyde said the valley's growth spurt doesn't seem to be waning.

"Nobody's stopped moving into this valley yet," he said, suggesting that a comprehensive water study will certainly help planners make smart decisions.

In bringing the meeting to its conclusion, Brown said local residents and public officials, in considering whether to pursue the study, have to consider the obverse.

"The bottom line is, you're playing Russian Roulette," he said. "If we don't choose to pursue this, then we've got to accept the consequences of that."

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