Greg Stahl, writer and assistant policy director for Idaho Rivers United, discusses the limits of the West’s most precious natural resource.
The summer view from atop Bald Mountain tells the story about the West’s most valuable natural resource. Ribbons of verdant cottonwood trees weave along the valley floor, surrounded by grids of homes and ornamental vegetation pockets and parks. The green valley provides a sharp contrast to the surrounding brown hillsides—a disparity that is the story of water in the West.
“Desert, semi-desert, call it what you will. The point is that despite heroic efforts and many billions of dollars, all we have managed to do in the arid West is turn a Missouri-size section green—and that conversion has been wrought mainly with nonrenewable groundwater,” writes Marc Reisner in his landmark examination of Western water use, Cadillac Desert—The American West and Its Disappearing Water.
Idaho’s streams and rivers are veins and arteries that pump through a parched landscape and give life to its people and creatures. Half of Idaho’s resident birds use rivers for nesting, and riparian areas are home to 70 percent of all plants and animals in arid parts of the state like the Wood River Valley. But water is as crucial to Idaho’s people as it is to its prodigious natural landscape.
“Water is the true wealth in a dry land; without it, land is worthless or nearly so,” writes Wallace Stegner in his biography of John Wesley Powell, the distinguished ethnologist and geologist who explored the Colorado River. “And if you control the water, you control the land that depends on it.”
The Big Wood River is the principal waterway conveying this valuable resource from the Smoky, Boulder and Pioneer mountains through the Wood River Valley’s communities. Between Galena Summit and the Hagerman Valley 111 miles to the southwest, the Big Wood tumbles down a subalpine valley, flows swiftly through consumptive mountain towns and allows patches of green to sprout in the desert below.
The Big Wood River, its tributaries and the aquifer that underlies nearly all of the valley floor constitute one of the most heavily studied water systems in Idaho. As the population continues to grow, pressure on this finite resource mounts.
“Water managers and private landowners are increasingly concerned about the effects of population growth on groundwater and surface-water supplies in the area …” noted a 2012 U.S. Geological Survey report on Wood River Valley water systems. “The entire population of the area depends on groundwater for domestic supply, either from domestic or municipal-supply wells, and rapid population growth since the 1970s has caused concern about the long-term sustainability of the groundwater resource.”
Since 2005, the USGS has undertaken an intensive study of the Big Wood River and its aquifer that has resulted in three scientific reports, with a fourth pending publication. The result, said agency hydrologist Candice Adkins, is that the Wood River Valley will be one of the first areas in the state with data to support management of surface water and groundwater simultaneously. Called conjunctive management, this is new to Idaho.
“They really are two systems that interrelate,” Adkins said. “It’s easy for people to think that they can stick a deep well in and pump and pump, and it will never affect the surface water. And it’s easy to think you can do something to a surface water body and not contaminate your drinking water. But that’s not how it works. Science has proved time and time again that they’re completely interrelated.”
While the Big Wood River is the thread that binds the Wood River Valley’s communities, the aquifer is an invisible underlying network that works in harmony with the river. Between its source and Magic Reservoir, 56 miles downstream and 3,800 feet lower, 28 named creeks and rivers feed the steadily growing—and below Hailey, shrinking—Big Wood River.
According to the USGS research, Blaine County’s consumption is high compared to the rest of the United States. The typical American’s annual use is about 100 gallons per day. In the upper Wood River Valley it is 767 gallons per person per day.
“Average water use in Idaho is higher than the national average, but it’s still lower than the Wood River Valley, about 200 gallons per day,” said Wendy Pabich, a Hailey hydrologist who last year published “Taking on Water,” a personal narrative about her journey to understand and reduce her direct water use and larger water footprint. “Water conservation is the low-hanging fruit. The cost of conservation is lower than the cost of new-source activation. We should not be growing Kentucky bluegrass in a high alpine desert, period.”
Water’s necessity to human existence led to a form of governance that has roots dating to settlement of the West. The foundation of Western water law, the prior appropriation doctrine, “first in time, first in right,” is unique in this country to the 17 conterminous Western states and Alaska. If a state is arid, it embraces the prior appropriation system. That system, however, encourages consumption, and our rivers are often used until there’s no river left at all. That is the case with the Big Wood River, which consists of nothing more than a cobbled sink of sun-bleached rocks and recumbent cottonwood trees below Bellevue during summer months when water use is highest and diversions tap the resource entirely.
The environmental and recreational benefits of the Big Wood River, however, have been recognized in the form of minimum streamflows established for sections of the Big Wood River near Hailey and Ketchum. These minimum streamflow water rights are held by the Idaho Water Resource Board to benefit fish, wildlife, recreation and the overall health of the river system.
“And maybe, looking into the future, we could manage for more than minimum streamflows,” said Kevin Lewis, conservation director for Idaho Rivers United in Boise. “Maybe we could look toward a day when we manage for optimum streamflows. Given the unknowns posed by climate change, we should be looking at better ways to protect our water than managing to minimums.”
As owner of Coeur d’Alene-based ROW Adventures, a rafting and adventure travel outfitter, Peter Grubb has been appreciating Idaho’s rivers for more than 30 years. He said the value that rivers provide beyond quenching the thirst of growing populations is immeasurable.
“There’s something about them that’s soothing, that pulls people in,” he said. “Thomas Merton has a great quote about listening to rain and how the rain flows into rivers and creates its own music and its own sound. As long as it’s willing to talk, he’ll listen. That’s how I feel about rivers—as long as they’ll talk, I’ll listen.”
The future, perhaps, will include more balance among all the competing uses for water, the West’s most precious natural resource.
Be water wise
• Sweep green: Sweeping driveways and sidewalks instead of washing them not only saves water (hoses can use five to 10 gallons per minute) but it will help protect the river (oil and other grime can get into the river and aquifer).
• Water efficiently: Limiting water use will save the resource and conserve the energy used to deliver water to your home. Use a soil-moisture monitor to ensure that plants get the water they need and no more.
• Recycle water: Use recycled water, rainwater or graywater on gardens whenever possible. Watering manually with a hand-held hose uses a third less water than an automatic irrigation system. If you do opt for an automatic system, increase efficiency by installing drip lines and efficient spray heads.
• Plumb smart: Water-efficient plumbing fixtures come with the WaterSense label, making it easy to identify toilets, faucets, washing machines and accessories that save water and reduce energy bills.
• Don’t let it run: Small drips add up to a lot of water. Data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency suggest that running toilets, dripping faucets and other household leaks can waste more than 10,000 gallons of water each year in a single home. Also, turn off the water when brushing teeth or washing dishes.
• Let nature take its course: Limit lawn fertilizer and pesticides—they end up in the aquifer and in the river.
• Eat less meat: According to the Water Footprint Network, 1,799 gallons of water is needed to produce one pound of beef. By contrast, raising vegetables and grains requires a fraction of the water.
• Sacrifice the sod: As much as half the drinking water in the United States is used to irrigate yards, and as much as half of that is lost to evaporation and runoff.