Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Trout Unlimited embarks on healthy-river project

Home Rivers Initiative is part of nationwide effort

Express Staff Writer

A fisherman displays a rainbow trout, one of several species of trout that live in Idaho rivers, lakes and streams. Photo courtesy of Trout Unlimited

    A long-term collaborative project between Trout Unlimited and the Wood River Land Trust will attempt to improve trout habitat in the Big Wood River.
    Project Manager Chad Chorney said the project is part of Trout Unlimited’s nationwide Home Rivers Initiative. He said the Big Wood project is joining existing projects on the South Fork of the Snake River, the Deschutes River in Oregon and streams in the Driftless Area along the border of Wisconsin and Minnesota.
    Chorney said money donated by individuals and foundations enabled Trout Unlimited to open a permanent office in Hailey in September to provide professional staffing by himself and Idaho Water Projects Director Mark Davidson.
    Chorney said that while the Big Wood is generally in good shape, “there are several things that are affecting the river that will likely have some long-term consequences if we don’t act now.”
    He said trout habitat has been degraded by channel straightening, rip-rap, a loss of woody debris and water diversions.
    Chorney said the initiative will add to existing studies to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the river’s health. For purposes of the studies and subsequent projects, the river will be divided into three sections: from the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters south to East Fork, from East Fork south to Glendale Road, and from Glendale Road south to Magic Reservoir. He said each of those sections has somewhat different issues and potential solutions.
    Chorney said the team will then draft plans in three spheres of activity:

  • Prioritizing habitat improvement opportunities.
  • Seeking ways to increase flows, especially in lower reaches of the river.
  • Promoting community education and stewardship.

    He said Trout Unlimited hopes to complete the assessment on the upper section of river by the end of 2014, but has not set a schedule for remaining projects.
Habitat improvement
    Chorney said habitat improvement could include adding more wood to the river, building drop structures to create more aeration and scour pools, planting riparian vegetation, opening more floodplain area to tributaries, reconnecting tributaries to the river and reducing future rip-rapping.
    Chorney said one component of the river assessment will be an inventory of barriers in tributaries that block fish passage upstream from the river. He said tributaries are generally colder and more shaded than the main stem, furnishing places where fish seek refuge during times of warmer water or other stressful conditions.
    “Healthy, connected tributaries are part of a healthy watershed,” he said.
    Chorney acknowledged that Blaine County is doing a better job in controlling rip-rap than it once did, but he said Trout Unlimited will be monitoring stream-alteration permit applications. He said woody debris can often be used in place of rip-rap to reduce bank erosion.
    Chorney said one of the initiative’s first projects will be to replace a culvert under U.S. Highway 20 this summer on the Rock Creek Ranch property, with the goal of opening fish passage to upstream portions of the creek expected to benefit from improvement projects there. The Wood River Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy have requested $1.1 million from the county’s Land, Water & Wildlife Program toward obtaining a conservation easement on the 10,300-acre property and turning it over to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
    “When you improve a stream, when you do restoration projects, it benefits the entire ecology,” Chorney said.
    Chorney said the Beaver Creek Fire last summer also impacted the river, by contributing to mudslides that poured silt onto the river bottom, clogging spaces between stones where trout lay eggs.
    “We want to make sure the river is healthy and acts as it should, that it can move sediment,” he said.
    Increased flows
    Chorney said the Big Wood River is often dry below the Glendale diversion south of Bellevue. He said Trout Unlimited plans to work with farmers and ranchers to create strategies for more efficient irrigation, and with upstream cities to reduce water use.
    “We’re looking at long-term solutions that benefit not only the fisheries, but the water users as well,” he said. “It’s not easy, but there are ways to do it.”
Chorney said other major diversion points are the Water District No. 45 diversion near Bellevue and the Cove and Hiawatha canals north of Hailey.
He said the organization will also be monitoring water-rights applications.
    Chorney said Trout Unlimited plans to do more education programs and habitat restoration projects with school students, such as the Adopt-a-Trout program that it conducted with Pioneer Montessori School in fall 2012. He said a plan is under way to include students at Wood River High School and Wood River Middle School.
    “We want the youth here to be the next stewards of the resources,” he said.
Greg Moore:

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