Friday, August 10, 2007

Pond?s future hangs in balance

Hulen Meadows water body is popular recreation amenity

Express Staff Writer

Photo by James Bourret-- People at play at the pond in Hulen Meadows are a frequent sight in summer. The artificially created pond has been gradually been filling in since it was built by the Idaho Transportation Department in 1990. Visible in the photograph are channels dug by involved parties to keep fresh surface water flowing through a new gravel bar into the pond.

The Hulen Meadows pond is an artificial catch-basin that is succumbing to the rather natural process of aquatic eutrophication, which is a fancy way of saying Mother Nature is reclaiming the area for her own.

The process has been ongoing since the Idaho Transportation Department in 1990 built the pond on Bureau of Land Management property. Never was it so noticeable as it was following the spring 2006 floods when the Big Wood River deposited tons of river rock in the catch basin resulting in a large gravel bar that bakes in the sun once spring runoff ebbs.

The catch is that is precisely the reason the pond was built. It was designed to catch sediments as part of ITD's highway improvements in the late-1980s. In a practical sense, the pond has done what it was designed to do, but it has also become a popular recreation amenity in a valley where slow-moving water is a scarcity.

"It's a place to bring your dogs out from town," said Ketchum resident Trey Knox on Wednesday afternoon. Knox said he would approve of his taxes going to dredge the pond—up to a point. But not if it were a multi-million dollar project.

And it's not. According to Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael unofficial estimates put the cost somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000.

Ketchum-area nanny Brisa Ayub said the girls she cares for want to go nowhere else.

"They could go anywhere, and they want to come here," Ayub said. "I'll offer to take them to Thunder Spring, and they'll say this is where they want to come."

One of the complications with the status quo is that the recently created gravel bar has cut off the majority of surface flows between the river and the pond, and that means water temperatures are rising, and aquatic plant life is flourishing. The floods, in effect, accelerated the process of eutrophication.

"In two weeks the temperatures have increased in the pond up to 8 degrees in the areas farthest away from the incoming cooler water of the river," wrote Hulen Meadows resident Gene Stiner in a July 20 e-mail.

Shallow portions of the pond were hovering around 61 degrees F, Stiner said.

"I'm confident that if we can keep the water moving into the pond through the summer that at least the fish will make it unless there is enough weed growth to limit oxygen supplies in the winter when the pond is frozen," he said.

Rob Ryan, a regional fisheries biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said trout can weather warm water temperatures up to the mid-70s.

"Any time you start thinking about water temperatures above 75 you're talking about pretty stressful conditions for trout," he said, qualifying that he was not speaking specifically about the Hulen Meadows pond but about trout tolerance for warm water generally.

Ryan also said oxygen levels in the pond could affect trout survival, but he declined to opine on what may be occurring at Hulen Meadows.

Hulen Meadows resident Jima Rice has found herself in the demanding position of lead pond advocate this summer and has been pushing Blaine County to organize and pay for dredging that would restore the pond to its original artificial state. It's something she estimates would cost $125,000.

"It's the only body of water that is accessible for play in the valley," Rice said. "I felt that the county's been blocking us along the way" to find ways to reverse the pond's aging process.

A petition coordinated by Hulen Meadows residents last summer garnered 750 names in support of dredging the pond, Rice said. Another petition this summer had amassed between 300 and 400 signatures.

Rice and other Hulen Meadows residents' pleas over the years to Blaine County officials to coordinate dredging of the pond have resulted in an up-and-down journey. Things will come to a head again this week when the Blaine County Commission hosts a meeting to consider how to proceed, if at all.

"In 2006, Blaine County was approached ... to help with restoration efforts of the pond and the County has obtained Army Corps and Idaho Department of Water Resources permits," reads an Aug. 15 letter from Michael to Hulen Meadows homeowners. "After further review, the Board has determined that any restoration effort must be done with the participation and cooperation of all the established stakeholders, and that the County should not continue to lead this effort without them."

Those stakeholders include the Idaho Transportation Department, Bureau of Land Management, Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

"The county agreed to pursue the permits, but without some sort of funding agreement or partnership, we're not going to fund this," Michael said. "We're making cuts out of our current budget.

"We need to get stuff on the record. It's all sort of been informal, meet at the pond, nothing ever gets resolved. We thought it was time to get people's positions on the record and then make a plan."

And the gist remains: Unless officials act the pond will continue to fill in, and an artificial recreation amenity will disappear.

"I come here pretty often to throw the ball for the dogs and stuff," said Warm Springs resident Sara Dana. "Doing things outside is as good an expense of the money as there could be."

And, said Michael, that is not something the county will take the lead on alone.

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