Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Plan aims to restore trout habitat

Land Trust proposes deal with canal company

Express Staff Writer

The Hailey-based Wood River Land Trust is working on a plan to add water to the Big Wood River below Magic Reservoir. Graphic courtesy of Ecosystem Sciences Foundation

Trout salvages are a boon for anglers looking to go over their bag limits, but the Wood River Land Trust is working with the Big Wood Canal Co. in an attempt to eliminate salvage fishing in the Big Wood River below Magic Reservoir.

The trust has been working with the company on a way to maintain enough water in a three-mile stretch of the river between the reservoir and the Richfield Canal to sustain a healthier trout population, said Scott Boettger, the trust's executive director.

"It's not just a pipe dream," he said. "It's something that can be accomplished."

A proposed agreement between the company and the trust would require the company to set aside nearly 40 acre-feet of water for each day of the agricultural irrigation season—roughly 130 days. In return, the trust would conduct water conservation improvements on the irrigation system, which would save the company enough water to allocate the requested amount to the trust, as well as sell more water to farmers.

"This whole dam system is very inefficient," Boettger said. "You don't make more water, you minimize the losses."

Boettger estimates that the trust would have more than 5,200 acre-feet of water "in the bank" by the end of each season, which could then be released into the river.

A 2010 report commissioned by the Land Trust and conducted by Boise-based Ecosystem Sciences Foundation indicates that in ordinary or drought years, rainbow and brown trout become stranded between Magic Dam and Richfield Canal when the canal company shuts off the water after the irrigation season.


"The idea, in a bad water year when the drought comes early, is to have some water set aside for the fish," Boettger said.

Boettger said increasing the flows by 15 cubic feet per second would allow trout to escape the stretch between the dam and the canal and reach the main river. As a result, fish losses would be minimized and more, bigger, fish would thrive in the area.

"We can actually release enough water to maintain that fishery, so it doesn't have to be wiped out," he said.

The efforts would be coupled with attempts to make irrigation water delivery more efficient, in order to ensure that farmers get the water they need, he added. The savings should be enough to compensate for the water purchased by the trust for off-season flows.

The first demonstration flow is currently being conducted, a result of heavy snowfall earlier this year that pushed the reservoir to its highest level in years. Instead of shutting off the water flowing from the dam, the company simply reduced it to a rate of 25 cfs.

The demonstration flow will allow the trust to determine whether the studies hold up in the field, Boettger said. The trust purchased the water from the company for this one-time flow.

No final agreement has been struck, but Boettger said he was optimistic about the results of the demonstration flow. Trout in this stretch of river have been threatened since Magic Dam was built in 1909, he said.

"It's really neat that after 102 years, we can get this done," he said.

No salvage on Big Wood

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game announced last week that fish on the Big Wood River below the Magic Reservoir Dam and the Richfield Canal will not be subject to salvage. "With the amount of water we have in the Big Wood system and the cooler fall temperatures, we believe fish in the Richfield Canal will survive over winter," said Doug Megargle, regional fisheries manager. "If temperatures really warm up again, we will revisit our decision." Salvage on other irrigation systems in the Magic Valley region will begin as water levels drop, the department stated in a press release. Though aspiring anglers need a valid fishing license, no limits apply.

Katherine Wutz:

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