Friday, March 12, 2010

Healthy river, healthy valley

Ketchum resident Andy Munter is the board president of Idaho Rivers United, a nonprofit organization that works to protect wild rivers and promote healthy waterways.


Amid the economic turmoil of weak real estate and tourism markets, there's an undercurrent to day-to-day conversations I have in the Wood River Valley. It's a hopeful current that focuses not on the struggles we face but on what a wonderful place this is and how grateful people are to live here. We have clean air, open vistas, magnificent mountains and some of the most abundant summer and winter recreation on the planet.

We're also blessed with the currents of the Big Wood River. It emerges as a spring high on Galena Summit and enchants the valley with its swimming holes, world-class trout fishery and cottonwood forests as it meanders south toward the Snake River. I believe it is one of the valley's golden gooses, a resource we must nourish rather than split open in the hopes of obtaining even more of its gold.

In April 2006, citizens from upper and lower Big Wood River communities came together under the guidance of Idaho Rivers United to create the Wood River Legacy Project, an innovative amendment to Idaho water law that allows people with water rights to donate them to the river for the purpose of enhancing its health and that of the communities that depend on it.

What we accomplished was something nobody thought possible: the first conservation bill to ever be unanimously passed by the Legislature. That was possible only because it was a common-sense bill that also protects agricultural water for our neighbors to the south. The legislation establishes flexibility for the water users. Donations of water can be for as little as one year and donors keep ownership of their water.

In its first two years, the Legacy Project has enjoyed resounding success, and last summer the project returned millions of gallons of water to the river system while simultaneously protecting the water rights of those who donated. Last spring, donations jumped from seven individual rights totaling 0.52 cubic feet per second to 23 individual rights totaling 2.138 cubic feet per second.

It might not seem like a lot of water, but it's enough to make sure the system works. We can see water in otherwise dry ditches at the bottom of the system, ready to feed Silver Creek, and we know more water has stayed in the river to support our fish. Now we need more donations. We need to show south valley irrigators that the Legacy bill is worth renewing when it expires in 2012. And, if it works here, Idaho Rivers United hopes to move it to other areas of the state where conservationists and irrigators can work together on common-sense water policy changes that will benefit rivers and farmers alike.

You may not think you have water rights to donate, but if you are part of a homeowners' association, your association may hold water rights that could be donated. Can your grass stand to be a little browner and your river and your community a little healthier?

I believe it's time for the community to look at the way we treat our river. If you don't have surface water rights to donate, there is plenty more you can do. If you have a grass lawn, check out the Wood River Land Trust's Trout Friendly Lawn program. Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy both have fish- and river-friendly programs as well.

The ultimate beneficiaries, after all, are us. Healthy rivers are good for fish, good for wildlife, good for communities and good for business.

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