Friday, May 4, 2007

Hulen pond threatened by silt buildup

County commissioners consider future of popular site

Express Staff Writer

Manmade Hulen Meadows pond, built in the early 1990s as part of a highway construction project on state Highway 75, is becoming increasingly closed off from the Big Wood River due to large deposits of river gravel and sand. The gravel bar on the left was largely built up last spring when a record flood coursed down the river. Photo by David N. Seelig

Built sometime in the early 1990s, the manmade Hulen Meadows pond is used by waterfowl, many other species of wildlife, and—especially in the summer—kayakers, children and other water-loving enthusiasts.

The Bureau of Land Management site is two miles north of Ketchum, west of state Highway 75.

On Wednesday afternoon, huddled together on the north shore of the pond and buffeted by a cold spring wind, between 12 and 15 individuals discussed the pond's future. Among the crowd were Blaine County Commissioners Sarah Michael, Tom Bowman and Larry Schoen, in addition to BLM officials.

Of concern to the crowd were the increasing levels of silt that are threatening to cut the pond off from the Big Wood River, which until now has fed the several-acre body of water.

The concerns of many who use the site were heightened after last spring's record flood on the Big Wood River in May and June.

Strong, high flows deposited a significant amount of river gravel and sand where the pond and river merge. Now, with flows far lower than at the same time last year, a major gravel bar is clearly visible.

Today, the narrow peninsula-shaped deposit almost entirely cuts the pond off from the river. On Wednesday, just a few small channels of water could be seen trickling into the increasingly bypassed pond.

What, if anything, should or can be done to save the pond was the primary topic of discussion on Wednesday. Commissioner Sarah Michael was responsible for scheduling the site visit.

Michael, who lives in the Hulen Meadows area and, thus, has witnessed the steady change at the pond, noted that the Big Wood River channel has changed over time, and this has affected the pond itself.

"The major channel used to be further west," Michael said.

One of the biggest question marks regarding the pond's future is who actually controls the land underlying the body of water. The answer to this question very well may shape what, if anything, is done to the pond, most in the crowd agreed Wednesday.

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Also unanswered Wednesday was the question of how expensive fixing the pond would be and who should fund the project.

Jim Koonce, who is under contract with Blaine County as its county engineer, explained that the pond was created to act as a sediment collection basin to offset roadwork done on state Highway 75 north of the pond site. The Hulen Meadows pond was actually one of three such basins excavated during the highway project, Koonce noted.

Since their construction, the other two ponds have completely silted in, he said.

What has happened to those ponds and to the Hulen Meadows pond is exactly what they were designed to do, Koonce said.

Last fall, Koonce submitted a permit application with the BLM to use the agency's land next to the pond as a temporary repository for placing gravel and silt removed from the pond. In the application, he estimated that 20,000 cubic yards of material would be removed.

Because of its large scope, the excavation project will have to go through a full environmental assessment under the federal National Environmental Policy Act.

If approved through the NEPA process, Koonce said he'd like to remove material from various locations in the pond area, not just the gravel bar. Apparently, the depth of the pond itself has decreased over time.

"I intend to work everything," he said.

However, for heavy machinery to be able to access the site to complete the excavation, Koonce said the pond would have to be drained. To do this, Koonce proposes to construct a temporary containment basin on higher dry ground—possibly out of hay bales—where the water would be pumped.

This would allow the water to seep back into the soil and, eventually, back into the river, he said.

Asked if there might be another solution to the issue that wouldn't require pumping the pond, Koonce suggested using a land-based dragline. Using a bucket attached to a long cable, the dragline could remove the silt without having to enter the pond, he said.

Going about it that way wouldn't be easy, Koonce warned.

"It's a herculean effort to do with a dragline, but it could be done," he said.

Still another concern for some is the act of draining the pond.

Steve Fisher, a local stream consultant, noted that due to springs that exist the area, draining the pond may be difficult.

"You might not be able to drain the hole," Fisher said.

Asking some of the most pointed questions about the project was Schoen.

"I'm less clear about the purpose of this exercise," Schoen said midway through the site visit.

With so many questions unanswered, the county shouldn't ask the BLM to begin the permitting process right away, Schoen said.

Addressing Schoen's concerns was Jima Rice, a member of the Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commission and one of the people spearheading a grassroots effort to have the pond fixed.

If nothing is done, the pond will eventually dry up, Rice predicted. Fixing the problem will benefit everyone—wildlife and recreationists, alike.

"It's a whole package," she said. "It's a win-win."

At the request of Lori Armstrong, field manager for the Shoshone BLM Office, Michael said they'd gather additional information omitted from the previous application and resubmit it to the BLM.

The pond issue will be placed on the agenda of a future public meeting, Michael said.

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