Water and the West: A Failure of Prudence


It’s hardly news that water in the West, especially the intermountain west, is scarce. Whether it is the seriously over-allocated Colorado River, the freshwater streams flowing in to the Great Salt Lake, or the salmon wars of the Klamath Basin, water is scarce, a limit on most kinds of western development and, in the face of anthropogenic climate change, a grave concern.

You’d think folks would take very good care of such a scarce, precious resource.

You’d be wrong.

WC will touch on two examples to illustrate that claim.

Dairy Farming in the Eastern Snake River Plain

The eastern Snake River Plain, most of southeast Idaho, is a giant lava field. Not that long ago, in geologic time, the giant blow torch of the Yellowstone Hot Spot slid under it. Everything was buried under that volcanic debris. The lava and cinder fields have since been covered with a thin veneer of wind-blown top soil, but the area is powder dry. In its native state, it’s part of the sagebrush steppe.

But when the state of California cracked down on CAFOs – Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – the dairy farmers relocated to the area. The rivers that drain the southerly part of Central Idaho run out into the Eastern Snake River Plain. When they reach that plain of cinders and fractured basalt, they sink into the fractured rock, disappearing under the ground. The Big Lost River, for example.

The course of the Big Lost River. Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News (graphic); map data © 2019 Google

The course of the Big Lost River. Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News (graphic); map data © 2019 Google

In years when existing water rights don’t consume the entire flow, the Big Lost reaches the Big Lost Sinks, a marshy area, and simply vanishes into the ground, joining the Snake River Aquifer. Some unknown time later, those waters emerge from the canyon walls of the Snake River Gorge as springs.

A few of the Thousand Springs along the north Snake River Canyon wall

A few of the Thousand Springs along the north Snake River Canyon wall

And that’s what Idaho’s recently arrived dairy industry relies upon for irrigation for cow forage: the Snake River Aquifer. But there are two problems: they are drawing water out of the aquifer faster than the rivers can recharge it. And those CAFOs are leaching cow shit, cow piss, antibiotics and their by-products into the aquifer. Eventually, those contaminants are going to reach the aquifer, and the outflow from the aquifer, at places like Thousand Springs, is going to be contaminated. The cities and towns on the Snake River Plain drink those waters.

The problem is serious and the very conservative Idaho Legislature doesn’t seem to care. The Trump Administration wants to rule the Big Lost River and its fellow streams aren’t “federal waters” and therefore aren’t subject to the Clean Water Act. In the meantime, the contaminants continue to percolate further.

Agricultural Run-off in the Snake River and Toxic Algae Blooms

As WC write this blog post, there are eight different large bodies of water in Idaho where algal bloom have made the water poisonous to drink or swim in.1 The toxic sites range from the Idaho Panhandle in the north to Salmon Falls Creek near the Nevada state line.

Identified Toxic Algae Blooms at August 7, 2019, per Idaho Department of Environmental Quality

Identified Toxic Algae Blooms at August 7, 2019, per Idaho Department of Environmental Quality

But half of those toxic sites are in reservoirs along the Snake River. And the snake River is the water source for much of southern Idaho, not to mention communities downstream in Washington and Oregon.

Toxic algal bloom, Mormon Reservoir, Idaho, July 2017

Toxic algal bloom, Mormon Reservoir, Idaho, July 2017 (Photo credit: Idaho DEQ)

What has happened is that run-off from agricultural fields, laced with fertilizers, herbicides, rodenticides and the other chemicals of industrial agriculture, have made their way in to the Snake River. The fertilizers encourage the growth of algae that produce the cyanotoxins; the other chemicals kill and reduce the organisms that might cotrol the algae. The result is that much of the Snake River is dangerously poisonous. The largest river in Idaho.

Toxic Algal Bloom, Brownlee Reservoir, Snake Iver, Idaho, August 2016

Toxic Algal Bloom, Brownlee Reservoir, Snake Iver, Idaho, August 2016 (Photo credit: Idaho DEQ

And with anthropogenic climate change heating up the reservoirs along the Snake, this problem is only going to get worse.

The problem is big, complex and expensive to solve. But it raises serious questions as to whether intensive agriculture in the Snake River Plain is sustainable. Perhaps it is, but not as presently practiced. And not with an Idaho Legislature that is in the pocket of Big Agriculture.

 


  1. Yes, WC understands that the algal blooms aren’t algae in the strict sense, but rather cyanobacteria, photosynthesizing bacteria. But Idaho DEQ and seemingly everyone in else in Idaho calls them “algae blooms” so WC will, too. 
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