Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Pipeline design unfolds

Public participation sought in irrigation project?s planning

Express Staff Writer

The Little Wood River watershed has been an experiment in federally funded water management for agricultural consumption since the 1930s. It has made the community of Carey quite familiar with managing federal subsidies.

The system, also linked to the Fish Creek Dam in the eastern part of the valley, has been the lifeblood of ranchers and farmers for generations.

In the latest round of federally funded planning and design review, the Little Wood Irrigation District, the organization that manages the Little Wood Reservoir and the existing canal system, is seeking to double the life of the surface water irrigation system. The district also wants to hear from irrigators to learn how the next generation of the system should work.

Last year the Idaho congressional delegation secured $2.25 million through federal agriculture appro-priations for the current design phase of the project.

In addition to one held Thursday at the Carey School, the district plans to hold at least two more public meetings before the design is com-pleted this winter.

Irrigation district board member Jim Peterson said information exchange needs to flow between the planners and the irrigators to come up with the best option for the valley.

?Somebody in here might come up with an idea nobody ever thought about,? Peterson said.

In an era of changing uses and growth, and as family farms diminish in numbers and development pressure is mounting in Carey, planners hope that a project to constrict the open canal system in enclosed pipe will help make the watershed more efficient and controllable.

Details about the design are still open for discussion and ideas were debated during the information-gathering meeting

Several critics of any construction, which could involve another $27 million in congressional appropria-tions for the project, see it as an expensive pork barrel project with little public benefit other than to assist the landholders with water rights in the irrigation district.

Representatives of the irrigation district and the Natural Resource Conservation Service tried to defuse such criticism, explaining that the design review is to be a public process and nothing is set in stone.

?This is just a proposal,? said Stan Schweissing, one of the designers of the project from CH2M HILL, the multinational engineering group hired by the irrigation district to help produce a design for the preferred alternative of the plan.

The design to convert the open canal irrigation ditches to a closed, gravity-pressurized pipe would help to conserve energy and meet water demand in the valley. Irrigators would need to pump less to water fields, thereby conserving power. Being enclosed, the system would lose less water to leakage, evaporation and consumption by trees along the ca-nals.

Planners stressed that the final cost of such a project could be less that the $27 million figure.

By some estimates the price tag could be pared down to $20 million. Whether or not the irrigation district could muster enough congressional support for the plan and when it might get attached to a bill to garner the funds is yet unknown, said Brian Henneman, a NRCS spokesman at the meeting. ?The congressional earmark now is strictly for design. We don?t have construction money.?

Henneman said the goal is to get the plan down on paper ?for when congressional dollars drop out.?

Two problems that were brought up included the potential loss of trees that have grown up along the irrigation canals and the possibility that water would no longer be available for recreation in the western canal.

Henneman said that if trees were killed as a result of the project, they could be replaced. Also, others suggested that any cottonwoods lost could be replaced with less water consumptive species.

Kevin Davidson, another NRCS spokesman out of the Shoshone office, said the final design could still allow for some water to continue to flow down the western canal as requested by adjacent landowners. He said the goal now is to work together to address everyone?s needs and come up with the best possible plan.

The greatest concern voiced had to do with the impact of the system on the aquifer and area wells. Groundwater recharge comes from water that does not evaporate or get used by plants and livestock.

The aquifer is a relatively shallow system, according to the Environmental Impact Statement completed for the project by the NRCS. A high water table has been known to flood basements in Carey.

Bob Simpson, water master for the irrigation district, said if water is conserved in pipes, more will be available for recharge in the existing river corridor, which he said is the best medium for recharge due to the composition of the riverbed.

Peterson said the plan could even restore some of the recreational value of the river.

The irrigation district, interested members of the public, engineers and the NRCS will spend the next several months developing the final plan.

CH2M HILL has designed a Web site to help all interested parties stay informed and participate in the project design. The Web site address is The log-in is ?irrigation? and the password is ?water.? People are in-vited to stop by the Little Wood Irri-gation District Office in Ketchum as well.

?If you see my pickup in front of the office, you?re welcome to stop by there,? Simpson said.

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