Friday, November 17, 2006

Sun Valley ?enlightened? by Wood River Legacy Project

Formal endorsement appears forthcoming

Express Staff Writer

Members of the Wood River Legacy Project presented their plan for the restoration of the Big Wood River basin to the Sun Valley City Council Wednesday, Nov. 15.

Project director Richard McIntyre of Crystal Consulting Group in Hailey made a case for the need to revive the Big Wood River below Bellevue. For the last 85 years, nearly a third of the river has been effectively dead, McIntyre said.

"We, the City Council, are enthusiastic about this. Your presentation enlightened us," Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorson said.

According to McIntyre, the problem began for the Big Wood River in the 1870s when farmers and ranchers began using the river for irrigation. By 1925, much of the river was diverted into the Bellevue Triangle to irrigate the vast expanses of agricultural land there. What remained of the natural flow was then completely diverted into canals where it remains today for most of the year.

This series of events broke the surface connection between the Big Wood River and Magic Reservoir, reducing the river's form and function in the lower Wood River Valley. The 1970s saw a boom in development in the upper valley. That, coupled with drought, contributed to the depletion of groundwater levels in Big Wood basin communities from Richfield to Jerome, McIntyre said.

In order for the project to succeed, Idaho water law must change, McIntyre said. Idaho is one of the few states offering no protection for in-stream water rights. This means current water rights holders must use their water or lose their right to it.

"I am tired of seeing Sun Valley Co. watering sagebrush in the spring just to maintain their water rights," Councilman Nils Ribi said.

In lieu of the "use it or lose it" system currently in place, McIntyre hopes to establish a "substantial tax benefit" for those with water rights who voluntarily place their water in-stream.

Changing Idaho law is not easy. It will take "a broad, bi-partisan coalition of citizens, county governments, municipalities, irrigation districts and organizations from Ketchum to the Snake River Plain," said McIntyre. "The valley community is the anchor for that effort."

A waiver to Idaho water law could be secured and brought before the Idaho Legislature in the 2007 or 2008 session. After that, the Legacy Project would have to identify water rights that could be voluntarily donated to begin stream-flow restoration. McIntyre believes this is very possible.

"The economic value of this river to the community is comparable to that of the ski resort," McIntyre said.

The total budget for the project is $291,000 over a two-year period. Of that, $160,000 is for scientific analysis and research.

Sun Valley is the last municipality in the Wood River Valley to hear the presentation. All other municipalities have already given endorsements. The council plans to draft a formal resolution and the matter is scheduled to be brought back in January for a formal decision.

"This is a very noble cause and a great idea," Ribi said.

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