By JOHN O'CONNELL
BOISE, Idaho -- Idaho's general surface water quality has improved in recent years, and five state stream reaches are ready to be delisted for specific pollutants, thanks in part to voluntary efforts by farmers and ranchers, according to an Idaho Department of Environmental Quality draft report now open for public comment.
Under the federal Clean Water Act, DEQ is required to conduct a comprehensive water analysis every two years to determine if Idaho's waters meet standards and support aquatic life and other beneficial uses. Public comment on the recently released draft 2012 report will be accepted through 5 p.m. July 10. The report is linked to www.deq.idaho.gov/.
It shows Idaho's streams and rivers fully supporting beneficial uses -- such as recreation, cold water life and propagation of certain fish species -- increased from 29 percent in 2010 to 32 percent in the 2012 draft. By contrast, streams and rivers not fully supporting beneficial uses decreased from 36 percent to 34 percent.
A large number of water bodies throughout the state still await evaluation. The percentage of lakes and reservoirs fully supporting beneficial uses also increased slightly, though the vast majority haven't been assessed.
Deinarowicz said many water bodies were added to the fully supporting list without a full assessment because they're located in newly designated wilderness areas, and there's no evidence of pollution. She said progress has also been made toward drafting plans to improve polluted waters, and to meet goals of existing plans.
In Northern Idaho, Yellowdog Creek, Steamboat Creek and two segments of Tepee Creek are proposed to be delisted for sediment impairment. In southeast Idaho, a segment of Raft River is proposed for delisting due to bacteria.
"I think our numbers are showing an improvement," said Nicole Deinarowicz, who prepared the report for DEQ. "We are seeing the kinds of trends we want to see."
Katie Shewmaker, a water quality specialist with DEQ's Twin Falls office, said efforts to improve Raft River, which once had nearly triple the allowed bacterial loads, began nearly two decades ago and have involved fencing of riparian areas and grazing reductions on federal land.
She attributes most of the gains, however, to private landowners. Shewmaker said ranchers have fenced cattle from stream crossings and stabilized banks. A DEQ program shares costs of improvements to reduce non-point source water pollution.
"Within our area we have farmers and ranchers that are very active in improvement," Shewmaker said.
In waters found to exceed standards, point sources of pollutants of concern, such as large industrial facilities or municipal wastewater treatment plants, must meet rigid standards. Agricultural producers aren't considered point sources and face no heightened scrutiny.
Hay and grain farmer Aaron Andrews, president of Blaine County Soil and Water Conservation District believes moss has diminished in Carey Lake mostly because improved irrigation systems have reduced nutrients in agricultural runoff.
"The No. 1 thing that's having the biggest impact on water quality in our area is converting from flood irrigation to sprinkler irrigation," Andrews said.
Kevin Lewis, conservation director with Idaho Rivers United, is pleased to hear of progress but notes Idaho's water quality still has ample room for improvement, especially where Snake River flows into Brownlee Reservoir.