By JOHN O'CONNELL
SODA SPRINGS, Idaho -- Bear Lake Grazing Co. can thank a new partnership of mining companies and conservation groups for the modern head gates and water flow monitoring equipment in its irrigation system.
The ranch, which runs 2,600 head of cattle within the Upper Blackfoot River drainage amid the so-called phosphate patch of Caribou County, agreed to allow the Upper Blackfoot River Initiative for Conservation to install screens to keep native Yellowstone cutthroat trout out of its irrigation channels.
In exchange, UBRIC is now completing structures to replace Bear Lake Grazing diversions on Diamond Creek and Lanes Creek, which merge to form the Blackfoot River. The improvements bring the grazing company in compliance with a recent legal decision on water rights. They also represent the first of many projects UBRIC hopes to complete that should further members' conservation goals while benefiting local ranchers who volunteer to help.
"They completed the job very quickly once they were able to get everything ready and started, and they did it when it wouldn't interfere with our cattle operation," said Joan Bunderson, managing partner with the Bear Lake Grazing Co. board. "We're a small cattle company. We don't have a lot of extra money to spend on things like that."
From UBRIC's perspective, the projects, which cost members roughly $180,000, "took out two pretty bad barriers and opened up 25 miles of habitat," explained Matt Woodard, the project manager representing Trout Unlimited.
UBRIC comprises TU, Idaho Conservation League, J.R. Simplot Co., Monsanto and Agrium/Nu-West Industries.
"We fully expect to see more fish in the tributaries and fewer lost in irrigation ditches next year," said Alan Prouty, of Simplot.
Woodard has heard gripes from a few other conservation leaders that UBRIC provides a public relations opportunity for the very companies whose phosphate mines have polluted the drainage with selenium.
"This has nothing to do with mitigation. They're still on the hook for cleaning up their mess. We've got a lot of opportunity to makes things better, so why not?" Woodard said.
Alan Matheson, UBRIC project facilitator, added, "It's been really encouraging to see the level of trust that's been built through this effort."
About a year ago, TU surveyed more than 200 culverts in the watershed, discovering about 20 obstructions.
For the next project on the list, planned for July 2013 with the Caribou Cattle Co., UBRIC has applied for a $250,000 Idaho Department of Environmental Quality grant, which its members will match with about $167,000. Work entails rebuilding a 6-mile stretch of Upper Lanes Creek, installing fences to keep cattle off the banks and building offsite watering systems to disperse livestock throughout their range.
The project will reconnect the creek with its historic flood plain, removing much of the estimated 5,000 cubic yards of sediment that the creek moves each year.
Woodard said Caribou Cattle Co. should enjoy cleaner water for livestock. UBRIC is in discussions with rancher Kent Allen for another project involving restoration to the Blackfoot tributary Slug Creek.