Friday, February 4, 2011

The Big Wood River deserves better


Rich McIntyre is a Wood River Valley-based political and environmental consultant.

For a community that professes great love for the Big Wood River and sees it as the "life blood" of the valley, we do a singularly poor job of protecting it. What happens here with a nod and wink is enough to have charges filed in states, counties and cities where people more highly value their local streams and rivers.

Landowners, public agencies and the city and county governments have allowed the river to be altered, straightened, drained and encroached upon. The old saying of "water running uphill to money" has never been so obvious as in the Wood River Valley, where landowners have lawns to the river's edge, Sun Valley Co. uses "growth and jobs" to plan development in a core Big Wood riparian area and local governments and key nonprofits turn a blind eye to illegal water use, ponds and riparian encroachment.

The reason, of course, is money. Some of the culprits in the destruction and dewatering of the Big Wood River are among the wealthiest people in the valley. They own businesses and have influence in local governments. Some are also significant contributors to local nonprofits, and as a result, rarely find themselves called out for actions everyone involved knows to be wrong.

While there are people who deserve to be identified and shamed for their willful theft or destruction of a public resource, the local governmental bodies that refuse to lead and enforce regulations that the public trust demands are also at fault.

The original debate over the 25-foot stream setback in Ketchum included concerns over "encroaching on private property rights." It turned out not to be an issue, because people ignored it anyway. The result is lush lawns and decks to the river, stairs, retaining walls and the complete destruction of natural riparian areas. This is, regrettably, not the exception; three of every four landowners on the river in Ketchum have done so willingly, knowing they were breaking the law. Three of four. A lack of enforcement at the county level has led to similar problems in the river from Galena to Stanton Crossing.

Those illegal lawns are serviced by companies paid to do one thing: keep it green and bug-free. The lack of regulation of landscaping companies has resulted in herbicide and pesticide spraying directly on the banks of the river. Note to municipal and county government: The wind blows here. There is nothing like fishing a mayfly hatch near Ketchum in August when a fogger rolls in and blankets the riparian area and river with poison. While the dry fly-fishing improves dramatically, woe to the animal, bird or person who consumes a trout feeding on poisoned insects, or breathes in the poisoned air.

In the Jan. 28 edition of the Idaho Mountain Express, Ketchum City Attorney Stephanie Bonney said "hiring someone to patrol the riverbanks would be too expensive." In the same article, we learned the Ketchum city staff has walked the entire river in the city to document the problem. So someone already has documented it—that really is good news, responsible government in motion. Now it's time to stop dancing around the issue and deal with it.

It is long past time to send a strong message to those who have broken the law, and in doing so have thumbed their noses at the public trust. Start by naming the landowners publicly. All structures that have been built within the 25-foot setback should be removed by a contractor selected by the city and paid for by the landowner (with erosion controls and replacement of riparian vegetation). The owners should concurrently be hit with fines sizable enough to get the attention of the community and dissuade others. Developers who have willfully ignored the riparian setbacks should be named, charged and fined. Landscaping companies who do business on the Big Wood River should be required to certify that they are not using pesticides or herbicides near the river, and when requested to do so by landowners, to explain the law. Fines and license revocation should be established for companies that violate the policy.

That is a near-term answer. The long-term answers are increased penalties and having city and county code enforcement officials who enforce the law and community leaders who speak truth to power and money.

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