Friday, December 16, 2005

Hydrologists stress need for better water picture

County urged to conduct far-ranging analysis

Express Staff Writer

USGS Groundwater Specialist Jim Bartolino presents a plan Wednesday for filling in the gaps of what is known here about water resources and quality. Bartolino said that by completing the $700,000 project Blaine County would have basic tools that could be used for land-use planning and managing future growth. Hydrologists Lee Brown, left, and Bruce Lium introduce a USGS plan Wednesday for consolidating and expanding water data about the Upper Big Wood River and Silver Creek basins. Photo by David N. Seelig

An inquisitive crowd flowed into the Old Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey Wednesday morning to hear a proposal about how to plug gaps in the county's stream of water knowledge.

In fact, there was standing room only as "water doctors" Lee Brown, Bruce Lium and Wendy Pabich joined members of the U.S. Geological Survey, who presented research on how the county can proceed with an assessment of the area's water quality and quantity.

Introducing the forum, County Commission Chairwoman Sarah Michael explained that concerns about water was one of the reasons for calling the county's current subdivision moratorium.

Brown, who moderated the presentation, said response to the presentation would signal whether the county will go into the future in an informed manner about the key resource, or whether the community will be playing "blind man's bluff" in the face of unprecedented growth.

USGS Groundwater Specialist Jim Bartolino presented the agency's evaluation of what the county needs to do to flesh out its data concerning water. He explained that comparing historic water levels with current measurements made at wells throughout the county would be used to develop map reflecting changes, which would establish a baseline for future carrying capacity of the valley's hydrological system.

The work plan is a four-phase project. The study would assess groundwater levels, surface water discharge and water quality conditions in the first two phases. The third phase would result in a map of hydraulic properties of various rock and sediments, which would be important information in the future if the county ever decides to construct a groundwater flow model -- a comprehensive look at where water goes after it is pumped or diverted. The fourth phase of the study would create a water budget -- how much water comes into the area in precipitation and leaves as discharge through rivers, subsurface flow and evaporation.

Water quality monitoring is essentially an early warning system like a "canary in a coal mine" that can be used to forecast future problems before irreversible situations arise, Brown said. Nutrient contamination in the Big Wood River has been Pabich's study focus. She said that although domestic water use is a small percentage of overall water consumption compared to irrigation, domestic use still has a high potential for contaminating water.

"I don't think we need to go down the road any further without this data," Brown said. "Bruce gave me a phone call in May 2004 and asked, 'How do you feel about what's going on?'" Brown said, expressing the scientists' concerns about the impact of growth on water quality and quantity in the Upper Big Wood River and Silver Creek basins.

"We came up with one conclusion. We really don't know (answers to) some of the most fundamental, easy questions."

Lium, who has worked with the USGS in the past studying biological and water quality on some 35 streams in the Big Wood drainage, said the participation of the USGS will guide the county in how to use information to make policy decisions about growth.

Brown said that although some of the area's nonprofit organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy and the Wood River Land Trust, have commissioned studies that offer important information about the dynamics of water, the key now is to develop a "systematic, integrated, comprehensive study of what's going on."

The proposed work plan to pull together prior studies, embellish them and make the information useful for planning purposes would cost about $700,000, according to the USGS.

"This is probably the most important study we could entertain in this county at this time," said Lium, head of American Water Resources, based in Hailey. Lium added that a major component of the effort to build a consortium would finally make use of completed studies that have been on the shelf.

"We want the final part of this to be a series of tools (so) people can take this data and make decisions (that) will maintain quality of life," Brown said.

Brown said he and Lium tackled the issue out of a sense of duty to the community.

Bartolino said a water budget enhances understanding of the aquifer system, but gives only a rough idea of sustainability. He said a groundwater flow model, although not part of the proposed USGS work and more costly to develop and maintain, would give the county a tool that would more clearly determine sustainable use and could give more information about site-specific impacts. Bartolino said such a model could be a tool that would be appropriate for the county.

During a question-and-answer session at the meeting, members of the public asked whether the study would also be related to more global issues related to water, including climate change. Also, as parts of southern Idaho are currently entrenched in legal battles over water rights, questions about the Snake River Basin Water Adjudication Board, created to settle water claims in the Snake River Basin, were also raised. The board is expected to begin settling Blaine County claims in the coming year.

When asked if the local study would be specifically coordinated with information about water dynamics in Twin Falls, Brown said emphatically, "No."

But, he added that questions about regional impacts are obviously appropriate to ask, however, the study is a local one being steered by local people.

"We'll share anything," Brown said.

Brown noted that as information becomes more cohesive, impacts of drought and increasing irrigation as a result will become clearer, and eventually questions about water rights might also play a role in how the county manages the resource.

In conclusion, Brown said the time is at hand to get a handle on water and that it is now time for the community to come forward to form a consortium and gather funding to complete the work.


Water Study

For more information about how to participate in the Water Assessment Steering Committee contact:

· Lee Brown: E-mail:; Phone: (208) 726-5713.

· Bruce Lium: E-mail:; Phone: (208) 727-7825.

· Wendy Pabich: E-mail:; Phone: (208) 788-6097

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