Ten years ago, water quality monitoring showed the Raft River had serious problems. Originating in Utah, flowing 75 miles through public and private grazing lands and past feedlots and farmers’ fields, the Raft River empties into the Snake River in Cassia County, Idaho.
Containing high levels of bacteria and sediment, the Raft River in 1994 was recognized as a degraded water body.
According to Teri Murrison, administrator of the Idaho Soil and Water Conservation Commission, the first efforts to improve water quality began in 1999, when adjacent landowners began working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, state Department of Environmental Quality and East Cassia Soil and Water Conservation District.
“Together they initiated the Raft River Riparian and Watershed Demonstration Project, using a water quality grant from DEQ,” she said.
Goals were erosion control, revegetation and relocating a feedlot next to the river. Carolyn Firth of the East Cassia District became involved in 2002. The district had the grant, but the project manager had left. Firth’s job was to get the project underway.
When a stream is put on a list of impaired waters under the federal Clean Water Act, it means the water is not meeting its beneficial uses, she said.
“Each stream in Idaho was evaluated by DEQ to determine beneficial uses. It might be primary contact such as swimming, or secondary contact like fishing or irrigation,” Firth said.
Once a stream is put on that list, it needs attention. Idaho Soil Conservation Commission and local Soil Conservation Districts are responsible for the agricultural part — if the impacts result from agriculture.
“It’s our job to work with individual landowners to see what we can do to address these issues,” Firth said, adding that they needed to decrease the pollutant load going into the Raft River.
“Streams can assimilate and dissipate a certain amount of pollutants (such as fertilizers) and sediments. Once they get beyond that point, they need attention,” Firth said.
Several landowners were switched from flood irrigation to sprinklers on fields next to the river.
“With flood irrigation there was erosion along the riverbank and cattle waste was carried into the river,” Firth said.
One landowner moved a corral.
“They were able to get financial help to build new corrals away from the river and put in a water system so cattle didn’t have to go to the river to drink,” she said.
DEQ monitored the river and saw bacteria levels dropping significantly each year, and proposed the section be delisted.
From 1999 through 2008, 24 nonfunctional diversion structures were replaced to improve the management of irrigation water, 41 rock drop structures were installed to stabilize stream gradients, and 20 rock crossings were installed to protect the streambed. About 43,000 acres were voluntarily removed from production by landowners through the USDA Conservation Reserve Program.
As a result, water quality samples collected during 2010 and 2011 led DEQ to propose removing the “bacterial impairment” designation for a 19.1-mile section of the Raft River from the list of impaired waters.
This success was a collaborative effort with landowners, state, local and federal agencies, Murrison said, adding that voluntary, locally led stewardship is key to conservation successes in Idaho.
“Farmers/ranchers are the most important and necessary partners in this four-way conservation partnership,” she said. “Without their cooperation and boots-on-the-ground efforts, these conservation projects would not be possible.”