Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Can we manage our water better?

Experts say cooperative efforts can make a difference

Express Staff Writer

Cooperative projects among landowners, environmentalists and government agencies are helping to restore some of the state's wildlife habitat, speakers told attendees at an Idaho Water Users Association conference in Sun Valley on Monday.

That cooperation can fend off federal intervention under the Endangered Species Act, which sometimes places burdensome restrictions on farmers and ranchers, the speakers said.

"If we can work with these issues and get in front of them before they become major lawsuits, it's really advantageous to all of us," said Jerry Rigby, a Rexburg attorney who specializes in water law.

Twenty-one speakers addressed a variety of topics during the association's annual Water Law and Resource Issues Summer Seminar, held Monday and Tuesday at the Sun Valley Inn. Rigby and Kim Goodman, director of Trout Unlimited's Idaho Water Project, spoke about new ideas for improving in-stream flows.

Goodman said her organization is working hard to keep Yellowstone cutthroat trout off the endangered species list. She said that would benefit both anglers and irrigators.

Goodman said Trout Unlimited has been working with farmers and ranchers to keep more water in streams by modifying diversion structures and improving irrigation efficiency.

"None of the work we do would be possible without having good relationships with landowners, specifically irrigators," she said.

Goodman cited numerous examples of cooperative projects, including one on Badger Creek, a tributary of the Little Lost River near Howe, about 20 miles northeast of Arco. She said the river and its tributaries are one of the last strongholds of non-anadromous bull trout in Idaho. The fish are on the endangered species list.

In an interview following her talk, Goodman said that because of the fish's listing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could have imposed conservation measures on local landowners. However, she said, the agency and landowners participated in a voluntary, cooperative project instead. She said the agency and environmental organizations such as Trout Unlimited realized that "we can work with landowners, and we don't always have to use the hammer."

The half-million-dollar project, funded by federal and state money and by private donors, replaced flood irrigation systems with sprinklers. Goodman said the improved irrigation efficiency restored flow to the creek and allowed the involved landowners to get three annual cuttings of hay rather than their previous two.

Another cooperative program, just underway, would improve habitat for mule deer and sage grouse.

Wayne Hammon, state executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, told seminar attendees about the agency's Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. The program pays farmers to take land that is irrigated by groundwater out of production and plant it with grass and other native plants. Its main goal is to alleviate pressure on the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer, where the water table has been dropping, but improved wildlife habitat is a secondary benefit of the improvements.

Hammon said the program fits well with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Mule Deer Initiative. That program, begun in 2002, encourages farmers to improve deer habitat on their land by paying for grass seed, spraying and tractor time.

Registration for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program began on May 30. Hammon said about 50,000 farmers in eastern and southern Idaho who appear to be eligible have already registered. He said 30 of those people are in Blaine and Lincoln counties. In Blaine County, eligibility is restricted to owners of land designated as "highly erodible," or who are enrolled in the Farm Service Agency's Rare and Declining Habitat program.

Hammon said participating farmers sign 15-year contracts with the Idaho Department of Water Resources and typically receive $134 dollars per year for each acre taken out of irrigation. Each participant is limited to a maximum annual payment of $50,000. Hammon said he expects to fill the program's allowed number of 100,000 participants by the end of the year.

He said the program is expected to save about 200,000 acre-feet of water per year.

In an interview, Hammon said he expects the program to slightly reduce the amount of grain, hay, potatoes and beets grown in the Snake River Plain, but added that it should have little or no impact on the market for those crops.

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