Friday, July 25, 2014

Magic Reservoir at 3 percent of capacity

Lack of water ends irrigation season, strands downstream fish

Express Staff Writer

Magic Reservoir, shown here from the west side looking east, was down this week to less than 3 percent of its 191,500-acre-feet capacity. The Big Wood Canal Co. has now ended its irrigation season and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has issued a salvage order for the harvest of fish stranded downstream in the Big Wood River and the Richfield Canal. Photo by Willy Cook

    Magic Reservoir in southern Blaine County dropped to below 3 percent of capacity last weekend, but is now slowly refilling because it is no longer being used for downstream irrigation.
    The Big Wood Canal Co., which owns water rights for reservoir holdings, ended its irrigation season on Saturday and shut off water flows below Magic Dam to the Big Wood River and the Richfield Canal.
    That closure led to lots of stranded fish, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game issued a salvage order on Monday that allows the fish to be harvested before they die. The Hemingway Chapter of Trout Unlimited attempted a fish rescue operation on Saturday, but water conditions defeated efforts to save trout for placement elsewhere.
    Meanwhile, regardless of the low water, West Magic Resort reported on is website that there are still ample recreation opportunities at the reservoir.
    “Contrary to popular belief, there is plenty of water to fish, ski or whatever suits your fancy,” the resort reported. “Fishing is steady for larger trout, slower for perch and red hot for bass, if you know how and where to get ’em.”
    Magic Reservoir has a capacity for 191,500 acre feet of water.
    The Natural Resources Conservation Service reported that as of the end of June the reservoir was at 20 percent of capacity. However, water use for downstream irrigation drew the water level down significantly before the Big Wood Canal Co. implemented the shutoff on July 19.

Contrary to popular belief, there is plenty of water to fish, ski or whatever suits your fancy.”
West Magic Resort

    With the irrigation season at an end, the reservoir is now slowly refilling. On Monday, the canal company reported water supplies at 5,706 acre feet, or 2.97 percent of capacity. On Wednesday, there was 6,032 acre feet, or 3.14 percent of capacity, and on Thursday there was 6,203 acre feet, or 3.23 percent of capacity.
    The canal company further reported that inflow to the reservoir from the Big Wood River was about 45 cubic feet per second this week.
    Big Wood River flow was nearly four times that much near Hailey. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the flow Thursday was 208 cubic feet per second, which the agency determined is about 56 percent of average flow.
    Before it reaches Magic Reservoir, more than 75 percent of the Big Wood River flow is being used by upstream water-rights holders or is lost through natural seepage.

Irrigation woes
    2014 wasn’t a good irrigation year for water users of the Big Wood Canal Co., but it was better than what they got last year, when water from Magic Reservoir was shut off on June 28. Low water in 2013 was a result of a low snowfall year, exacerbated by the fact that the reservoir had to be drained of about 40,000 acre feet in late 2012 because of repairs that needed to be made at Magic Dam.
    The three extra weeks of irrigation this year meant that farmers got in two good crops of alfalfa hay, rather than only one as last year, and allowed small grains such as barley and wheat to mature for harvest, said Carl Pendleton, of Shoshone, board chairman of the Big Wood Canal Co.
    In a good water year, farmers typically get from three to four cuttings of alfalfa.
    Pendleton said corn crops, cut for silage mainly for dairy farms, will suffer as a result of the water shutoff, with both lower quality and lower quantity at harvest.
    As with last year, Pendleton said farmers, except those who have an alternative well system for irrigation, avoided planting late-maturing crops such as potatoes and sugar beets.
    Pendleton acknowledged that the reservoir is now refilling, but noted that it’s at a lower rate than usual.
    “The inflow is about half the normal,” Pendleton said. “It’s usually about 100 cfs for this time of year.”
    The Big Wood Canal Co., through the Big Wood River and the Richfield Canal and its laterals, provides irrigation water to about 35,000 acres of farmland in Lincoln County.

Fishery woes
    Fish and Game’s salvage order applies to the Big Wood River downstream from the old railroad trestles, which are about 1.25 miles downstream from Magic Dam, and to the Richfield Canal from the canal diversion downstream to the Gooding County line, and including the Richfield and Lincoln canal systems.
    There is no limit on how many fish can be taken, and a valid Idaho fishing license is required. Fish may be taken by any method, excluding use of firearms, explosives, chemical and electrical current. The salvage order is in effect until Nov. 1.
    Rather than harvest the fish, the Hemingway Chapter of Trout Unlimited attempted fish rescues near the canal diversion on both Friday, July 18, and Saturday, July 19.
    Chapter President Ed Northen said Wednesday that Trout Unlimited originally thought the water would be shut off on July 18 and showed up with a crew and equipment for the rescue before learning that the water would run until the following day.
    Crews and equipment arrived again the following day, but Northen said water conditions made rescue impossible.
    “There were fish gasping for breath and dying, so the oxygen was low, but the water was too high to do a rescue,” Northen said. “I don’t know why the water levels didn’t’ come down as quickly as last year. We hung around about four hours. The water was going down but it didn’t go down enough for a rescue.”
    Northen said he checked the river from the trestles upstream to Magic Dam, which is a popular fishing area, and saw a few dead fish but noted that most of the fish seemed to be doing OK.
    “If there’s enough connectivity between the pools, the fish have a better chance of survival,” Northen said. “There were still fish out there. It seems like there’s always some fish in there.”
    Although water is not being released from the dam, there is still some flow from seepage and springs in the area.
    According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the water flow in the Big Wood River immediately below Magic Dam was 3.5 cubic feet per second on Wednesday and 2.7 cfs on Thursday. The USGS noted that the flow is about 1 percent of normal.

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