A request for $56,650 from Blaine County’s Land, Water and Wildlife fund is intended to keep Ketchum’s southern gateway green, but numerous questions will need to be answered before the county is likely to relinquish the money.
The fund was created by county voters in 2008 through a two-year property-tax levy that raised about $3.4 million. The money can be used to protect open space, including farms and ranches, wildlife habitat and water quality. About $2.8 million remains.
Now the Idaho Foundation for Parks and Lands is seeking help to fund a $114,350 project to replace flood irrigation with sprinklers on the Reinheimer Ranch, which straddles state Highway 75 just south of Ketchum.
“Everybody who lives in Blaine County and drives by this property appreciates the value of the open space addressed by this request,” Commissioner Larry Schoen said.
The sprinklers would irrigate 68 acres of the property’s total of 108 acres. The rest is sloped land on the west side of Dollar Mountain.
The foundation would contribute $20,000 and Sun Valley Co. would provide $37,500 worth of labor.
The Levy Advisory Board, composed of nine local residents, voted 7-2 in July to recommend approval of the expenditure, and the request was presented to the county commissioners Tuesday. Clare Swanger, project coordinator for the Land, Water and Wildlife Levy program, told the commissioners that in terms of expenditure and portion of total cost, the request is consistent with others that have been funded.
The commissioners expressed cautious support for the project, but continued the matter to an as-yet undetermined date to obtain more information and to notify nearby residents.
Except for six acres that contain a historic house and other buildings, the property was donated by Eleanor Reinheimer to the Parks and Lands Foundation in 1977, to be kept as open space at the entrance to Ketchum. The six acres, as well as water rights to the whole property, are owned by the Eleanor Reinheimer Trust. In 2010, Sun Valley Co. entered into a five-year lease of the remainder of the land and the water rights to grow hay and to pasture its draft horses.
In an interview, Justin Hossfeld, project manager for Sun Valley Co., said the labor-intensive flood irrigation is too expensive for the company to continue indefinitely. In addition, he said, the current system irrigates only 30 to 40 percent of the property.
Foundation Vice President Brian McDevitt said the intent of the proposed project is to make the property financially sustainable and to keep the land greener for longer during the irrigating season.
McDevitt told the commissioners that the change to sprinklers would reduce average water use from 1.96 cfs to 1.23 cfs, thereby leaving more water in Trail Creek, from where it is diverted. He said the change would also reduce erosion on the land and the amount of sediment deposited in the Big Wood River. All that would benefit fish habitat, he said, and the greener pasture would provide more forage for wildlife.
Hossfeld said an electric pump would be installed at the northeast corner of the property to bring water from the McCoy ditch into a system of pipes buried in the ground. He said five Komet sprinkler guns would be rotated among 120 vertical risers, which he indicated would be about 10 inches tall, attached to the pipes. He said two self-automated sprinkler guns, each about the size of an ATV, would be attached to hoses to reach the southern third of the portion of the property on the west side of the highway.
“Everything here will be buried, covered and as invisible as we can make it,” he said.
Despite that assurance, concerns about the proposal were raised by the commissioners and several members of the public.
Nearby resident Gary Vinagre said the McCoy ditch helps to charge four wells in the vicinity, and the residents of seven houses could be affected by noise from the pump, which Hossfeld said operate at about the level of a window air conditioner. Vinagre said neighbors had not been notified of the proposed funding request.
“I’m in favor of this because it’s going to keep things green,” he said. “Fire is always a concern of ours. I am a little worried about how much water this is going to suck out of the ground.”
Hossfeld said the ditch would still carry water and the wells should be unaffected.
Hailey attorney Martin Flannes asked what would happen to the unused water left in Trail Creek, which would still be held by Sun Valley Co.
“If it’s not protected, the water could still be sold to somebody else,” he said. “It could be sold to a developer, so there’d be no wildlife benefit.”
Commissioner Jacob Greenberg posed the question of whether an alternative system, funded solely by the applicants, might be even louder than the proposed pump. He said he’d like to make approval of the request contingent upon the Reinheimer Trust’s extending the lease with Sun Valley Co. for at least another five years.
“I think that would be crucial for lasting conservation effects,” he said.
Boise attorney John Ritchie, representing the trust, said he expects the lease to be continued, but he pointed out that the trust will be dissolved upon the death of 83-year-old Peter Reinheimer, at which time the lease will terminate.
Commissioner Larry Schoen said that before the county spends money on the project, it will need to be assured that the three parties involved—the foundation, the trust and Sun Valley Co.—all have the same goals.
Schoen, himself a farmer, also questioned how a six-acre property can have a water right for 4.4 cfs.
“I don’t know what we’re funding because I don’t know the details of the nature of these water rights,” he said.
He expressed doubts that the proposed 120 sprinkler risers would not be visible, and called the proposed system “really expensive.”
“It’s a crazy amount of money to irrigate 60 acres,” he said.
Schoen also asked what other funding sources the foundation had approached. He said this project is exactly the kind of thing that the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service funds, though he said he doubted the agency would fund such an expensive irrigation system.
He said the commissioners did not appear ready to move on to the next phase of the application process, which involves drawing up a detailed grant application, “because there are still unanswered questions.”
Levy Advisory Board Chair Ben Sinnamon said his vote of approval for the project was “more equivocal than I’d like it to be.” He said he was uncertain whether the project fit with the goals of the program.
“There’s a reasonable argument that this benefits wildlife and water quality, but there’s no clear evidence that that’s so,” he said. “I think this is one of those decisions where reasonable minds can differ.”