Wednesday, January 18, 2006

County watershed assessment plan advances

USGS commits start-up funding

Express Staff Writer

As the Blaine County Board of Commissioners prepared to meet with promoters of a water assessment project for the Big Wood River and Silver Creek watersheds regarding water quantity and quality, the board first finished up a meeting with the Ketchum-based Environmental Resource Center about new and on-going recycling programs.

Blaine County Commissioner Dennis Wright asked the organization to consider helping to educate the public about the quality of drinking water resources in the Wood River Valley. He also recommended that the ERC work to keep plastic water bottles, a difficult commodity to recycle, from entering the waste stream at all.

"Municipal waters (are) about as top grade as you can get compared to bottled waters. Don't purchase plastic bottles in the first place," Wright said. "(We're) hammering on the back end (with recycling) rather than the front end. We have excellent municipal systems. I think this gentleman would back that statement." Hailey Public Works Manager Ray Hyde, who attended the meeting, nodded in agreement.

Directly following the discussion, the board met with three prominent local hydrologists, Lee Brown, Bruce Lium and Wendy Pabich, for an hour to discuss the status of the push to get a comprehensive view of the community's water resources.

Most of the meeting involved a review of what information the assessment would provide.

Although commissioners agreed that government should do its part and refrain from spending public money on bottled water that might be supplied at meetings, the county did not show their hand in regard to the watershed assessment.

Brown announced that the U.S. Geological Survey has definitely committed $50,000 to the first phase of the project—an "assessment of ground-water level and surface-water discharge conditions" estimated to cost about $155,000. The first phase could be completed by Spring 2007 and the USGS could help procure more money for other proposed phases, Brown said. But, he added that other communities are also interested in the initial funds, which, if Blaine County is not interested, would be offered next to Payette County.

Hyde, who supports the assessment, said water meters installed in Hailey over the past three years are part of a $700,000 water conservation effort that was paid for by the federal government. His point was that people do not need to balk at the cost of the water assessment proposed by the hydrologists and the USGS because there may be ways to spread out the cost.

Commissioners have scheduled a meeting at the Community Campus Distance Learning Center in Hailey for Feb. 1 at 6:30 p.m. to discuss water as a management tool. Commissioners are expected to weigh in then on how the county should participate in the assessment.

Commissioners and the hydrologists agree that any project should involve a consortium of community members, including nonprofit organizations.

Wright asked how the Snake River basin water rights adjudication process would play into the assessment. In his view, the state, through the Idaho Department of Water Resources, needs to be brought to the table.

Brown pointed out that IDWR often contracts out to USGS for research. He added that a comprehensive understanding of the watershed is needed no matter who takes the lead if the county is to plan equitably for future growth and manage the resource in a sustainable manner.

Wright said in his view it is important to respect the turf game and added that the state could be another funding source for the entire project, which could cost some $700,000 for all phases.

Brown recommended ultimately that a full-time water scientist, someone other than himself or Lium, be hired to spearhead the project.

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