The shaded area of this map shows private land in the upper Sawtooth Valley where the project will take place, as well as Forest Service land parcels within the private holding (lighter shade).
Express map by Tony Barriatua
A $2 million project involving a private landowner and 10 government agencies is being put together to improve habitat for endangered fish species in the upper Sawtooth Valley.
The project’s main goal is to leave more water in Pole Creek by adjusting irrigation on 1,000 acres of land owned by the Salmon Falls Land & Livestock Co. and on 75 acres of Sawtooth National Forest parcels within that private holding.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, Pole Creek has been designated critical habitat for recovery of chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout.
“Pole Creek is the tributary that has one of the greatest potentials for salmon recovery in the upper Salmon River,” said Mark Moulton, water and fisheries program leader with the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
A Review Environmental Assessment issued by the Forest Service last summer states that the project was initiated by an application from Salmon Falls Land & Livestock Co., owned by the Henslee family in Hagerman, for reauthorization of its permit to divert water from the creek.
“To authorize that, we need to make it compatible with the recovery of the species,” Moulton said. “They’ve been willing and eager to enter into that dialogue.”
The agency stated that the project is the first to be undertaken in accord with a plan to meet both fish recovery goals and irrigation needs drawn up in 2010 by the Sawtooth National Forest, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state of Idaho.
The agency document states that irrigation diversions draw 22 cfs from the creek, leaving summer flows too low and the water temperature too high to provide habitat for the fish.
The application seeks to relocate the diversion point 800 feet upstream, replace the diversion structure with one that would allow fish passage, replace onsite hydropower with commercial power, offset part of late-summer irrigation demand with well water and reconfigure irrigation pivots to avoid rolling them through the creek.
“There’s no cost-benefit analysis.”
In return, an agreement with the landowner would set minimum flows that vary with the season and conditions, but would leave at least 12 cfs in the creek.
The project would be funded primarily by the Columbia Basin Water Transactions Program, which is administered by the Bonneville Power Administration and the nonprofit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The program gets its money from regulatory actions and court settlements involving natural resources and the environment. It would provide about $980,000 for new irrigation pivots and $160,000 for new pipe.
NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund would provide an estimated $320,000 to provide commercial power and $270,000 to drill wells. Morgan Case, project manager with the Idaho Department of Water Resources, said the elimination of onsite hydropower would allow an additional 7 cfs to remain in the creek year-round. She said that would be added to a 6 cfs minimum flow that had been achieved in 2005 when the landowner agreed to use a generator.
Case said the department would pay the irrigation power bills for 20 years. She said the system’s design has just been completed and has been presented to a department engineer who will calculate the cost of supplying power for it.
“We compensate the landowner for these increased costs of operation,” she said.
However, local environmental activist Jon Marvel contended that the agencies involved could simply buy the land for the approximately $2 million being spent on the project. He also contended that the Forest Service could invoke the Endangered Species Act, which requires that any action authorized by federal agencies not jeopardize endangered species.
“There’s no cost-benefit analysis,” he said. “Considering that the government could have either just bought the property outright and put all the irrigation water back into Pole Creek or required a minimum stream flow to protect habitat and passage for listed fish in Pole Creek, this seems like an excessive cost just to keep 1,000 acres of pasture green for cattle.”
The Forest Service’s Review Environmental Assessment states that land acquisition was eliminated as an alternative because funds were not available. Moulton said the Henslee family is not necessarily opposed to selling the land, but several groups involved with fish conservation in the area looked at that possibility and concluded that it would be too expensive. He also said the money currently available from the federal agencies could not legally be used for land purchase.
Two real estate agents familiar with local ranch properties who were contacted by the Idaho Mountain Express said there have been no recent sales of ranch land in the upper Sawtooth Valley and therefore estimating the property’s value is impossible.
Last summer, the Forest Service replaced two culverts under Pole Creek Road with bridges to facilitate fish passage. That project was carried out with the help of $7,500 from the Orvis-Trout Unlimited 1,000 Miles Campaign, which is dedicated to removing and improving culverts across the country.
Chad Chorney, central Idaho project manager for Trout Unlimited, said the upper Salmon River has some of the best salmon and trout habitat left in the United States.
“Anything we can do to open up additional habitat in this watershed is critical,” he said. “Getting some more water in the habitat is beneficial as well.”
Moulton said Pole Creek has the potential to be a particularly productive tributary because of its partial sedimentary and volcanic geology, unlike the tributaries on the western side of the Sawtooth Valley, which have granite streambeds. He said the Pole Creek geology provides better nutrients for insects and riparian growth.
Moulton said that under natural conditions before extensive irrigation in the area, the creek probably provided spawning and rearing habitat for thousands of fish, though he acknowledged that that kind of number is not expected to return anytime soon.
Sawtooth National Recreation Area Ranger Joby Timm said a decision on the water-diversion application should be made by September.
Greg Moore: email@example.com