This article originally appeared on the Idaho Conservation League Blog on February 13, 2019

Water quality problems in the Snake River have been brought to the attention of Idaho’s lawmakers with hopes of securing additional funds for monitoring

The Snake River begins in eastern Idaho as a blue-ribbon trout stream, a world-famous fishing destination, and a sanctuary for people and wildlife alike. Downstream 793 miles, when that same Snake River arrives at Brownlee Reservoir above Hells Canyon, the water is so polluted that the state of Idaho warns peoplenot to eat fish from it or even let river water contact their skin.

For decades the Snake River has been polluted and overallocated, resulting in poor water quality and declining flows. That’s why ICL is working to Restore the Snake River and make it swimmable and fishable again.

New Developments

The good news is ICL is not alone. Last week, members of the Southern Idaho Water Quality Coalition (SIWQC) presented to the House Resources Committeeregarding current water quality problems in the river. The SIWQC is a coalition of stakeholders in the Magic Valley composed of representatives from local cities, canal companies, the aquaculture industry and others. The coalition’s formation is a step in the right direction, as it provides those stakeholders with a unified voice to speak up for the quality of the Snake River — the lifeblood of southern Idaho.

The SIWQC’s presentation highlighted the need for additional water quality monitoring in the Snake River and its tributaries. We agree that existing monitoring efforts on the Snake are not sufficient to understand the scope and scale of the worsening nutrient pollution problem in the river.

While the recognition of this important issue by the SIWQC and the legislature is a good first step, we must do more. Ultimately the state should provide additional funds for water quality monitoring and we must work together to find solutions that restore flows and clean up the river.

Increasing Phosphorus in Our Aquifer

The lack of comprehensive, high-quality monitoring data throughout the Snake River watershed is problematic because it leaves Idahoans in the dark when it comes to the growing threats to our water quality. One example is rising levels of phosphorus in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer.

Data obtained from the Idaho Department Fish & Game shows that trends of phosphorus concentrations in aquifer-fed springs have seen marked increases since 2011 (Figure 1). These unnaturally high levels of phosphorus in our groundwater are directly attributable to agricultural land use and dairy feedlots on the Snake River Plain, and will hamper efforts to resolve nutrient pollution issues in the Snake River going forward. Phosphorous contamination contributes to outbreaks of toxic algaeas well as rapid growth of aquatic weeds. This growth reduces oxygen levels in the river, which in turn harms fish and other aquatic species.

Figure 1. Average annual phosphorus concentrations of incoming spring water at four IDFG-operated fish hatcheries along the middle Snake River. Data source: IDFG via public records request.

Help Us Restore the Snake!

Restoring the Snake River is a big effort and it is going to require a big plan — bigger than anything that has been done in Idaho before. We believe that a basin-wide river restoration plan is needed. If we don’t intervene and protect it now, we may pass a point of no return. Healthy rivers don’t happen by accident; they need a voice. Through a commitment to work with partners, communities and other stakeholders, we are that voice. With your help, we will continue to fight for clean water in the Snake River and throughout Idaho. After all, clean water is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.

by Josh Johnson