The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has extended a fish salvage order to the three-mile stretch of the Big Wood River between the Magic Reservoir Dam and the Richfield Canal diversion head gate.
The order went into effect on Friday, July 5, as water conditions began to deteriorate and fish began to die. The three-mile stretch of river lies in a canyon, making it hard to get to but it is a favorite fishing spot for determined fishermen, both from the Wood River Valley and from the Magic Valley.
The extension adds to an earlier fish salvage order that became effective on July 1 for the Richfield Canal and its lateral systems and for the Big Wood River below the Richard Canal diversion head gate.
Under a salvage order, all bag, possession and size limits are suspended and fisherman are allowed to catch fish by any means other than using firearms, explosives, chemicals or electrical shock.
The Big Wood River below Magic Reservoir began drying up on June 28 when the Big Wood Canal Co., whose members hold water rights in the reservoir, ran out of irrigation water for the 2013 crop year. Several hundred Lincoln County farmers who rely on reservoir reserves for irrigation now stand to lose millions of dollars from crop loss.
The low reservoir levels were caused by below-average snowfall in the Big Wood River drainage area and by the fact the Big Wood Canal Co. had to drain 40,000 acre feet from the reservoir last fall so that repairs could be made on an underwater leaking hydraulic fluid line at the Magic Dam electrical power plant,
The reservoir water level is currently at about 3 percent of capacity.
Fish and Game is keeping a close watch on water conditions in the reservoir in hopes that a fish salvage order won’t be necessary there too as fish begin to perish.
“So far, so good,” Doug Megargle, regional fisheries manager for Fish and Game, said Tuesday. “But we’re going to keep an eye on it. It is recharging. I know there’s a little water coming in, but I don’t know how much.
“If I was a gambling man, I would gamble Magic is going to survive,” he said.
Nonetheless, Megargle noted that there have been low water years before when Fish and Game worried about losing the Magic Reservoir fishery “and this may be the year it happens, with July and August still coming.”
Fish rescue canceled
Wood River Land Trust, a Hailey-based conservation organization, along with the Hemingway Chapter of Trout Unlimited and with the cooperation of Fish and Game, had planned a trout rescue operation for July 3 in a large pool upstream of the Richfield Canal diversion, but had to cancel the plan.
“We had to cancel the fish rescue because the fish in the pool where we planned the rescue had all died,” said Keri York, Land Trust senior conservation coordinator.
“We were really disappointed when we found that mortality; we were a day too late,” York said.
She explained that high temperatures along with low water recharge depleted oxygen reserves in the pool much sooner than had been expected.
“It’s a tragedy,” York said. “It’s a really bad situation. It’s a bad situation for everybody.”
She noted that further upstream in a large pool directly beneath the dam there were some dead fish along the bank but that others could still be seem swimming and eating in the water.
It’s unlikely another fish rescue will be attempted because the river is hard to get to and there are few areas where a truck can be brought in with the equipment needed for the rescue.
“It’s absolutely the worse situation possible,” said Scott Boettger, executive director of the Land Trust. “It was an exceptional fishery and it doesn’t need to happen. This all-or-nothing attitude is bad for the farmers and bad for the fishery.”
Boettger said the water in Magic Reservoir should have been managed more effectively so that water supplies could have been stretched out.
“This all-or-nothing attitude isn’t going to help anybody,” he said. “If we could work together to find ways to conserve water, they’d [farmers] have more days.”
Megargle said the fishery below Magic Reservoir may not be a complete loss.
“I wouldn’t say ruined,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
He said there are several holes along the three-mile stretch of river that are 15-20 feet deep.
“It could take it a while to recover,” Megargle said. “There’s a lot of fish that might live.”