On a clear evening in the Magic Valley of southern Idaho, Don Campbell heads down a hill to check on his catfish. They're enclosed in a group of raceways below his house overlooking the Snake River. Some people may think the whiskered fish are ugly and extra slimy; Campbell contends they're the most delicious fish on the market.
"There's nothing like it," he
says, a grin creasing his face. The market seems to agree: Catfish
farming is a booming business.
Campbell yanks a waste trap, glassy water explodes into a fury of
hundreds of thrashing catfish.
"Time to water the
alfalfa field," he says, hoisting a large pipe from the waste trap.
It sends a torrent of water and fish waste to his alfalfa
This is one of Campbell's inventions: a
closed-end system for containing fish waste. Campbell, who
describes himself as an environmentalist, says he knew a better
system was needed to contain fish waste rather than simply
vacuuming raceways and piping waste into settling ponds. From the
settling ponds, polluted water was eventually poured into the
Middle Snake River. The hundreds of fish farms in the valley
contribute about 20 percent of suspended solids and nutrients to
this most polluted reach of the Snake, near Twin
Under Campbell's system adopted five years
ago, fish waste collects in separate settling zones in the
raceways. When Campbell pulls the plug in the waste zones to keep
the raceways clean, none of it reaches the
Because many fish farms now employ the
same concept, Campbell notes an overall trend toward improved water
quality. "We're going to win this battle," he says. "Every day the
river is going to get cleaner."
former kayaker with a master's degree in biochemistry, says a
generational change is occurring. "We grew up with an environmental
ethic, and now we're moving into positions of decision-making
authority and actually instituting these water-quality programs at
the ground level."
Farmers who raise other crops
along the Middle Snake are catching the fever, too. Both the North
Side and Twin Falls canal companies are making substantial
investments each year to build sediment ponds and prevent soil from
pouring into the river.
"Water quality is going
to be on our agenda from now on," says Vince Alberdi, manager of
the Twin Falls Canal Co. "We've all got a real responsibility to
clean up our share of the Snake River; we're all part of a big,
Clay Robinson, maintenance
supervisor for the canal company, drives his white pickup truck to
a new sediment pond that was built this year. The pond was 10 feet
deep and empty last spring. Now it's full of
"I can't believe how much sediment is in
here," says Robinson. "All of that dirt would be in the Snake River
if these ponds weren't here. Once we get 80 ponds installed, we'll
be taking a whole bunch of sediment out of the river - we're
The ponds serve a dual function.
They trap sediment and provide new wetlands for waterfowl,
songbirds and fish. Alberdi says an increasing number of farmers
want to have ponds installed on their
"It's the across-the-fence
demonstration kind of thing that will sell this program," Alberdi
says. "If a bunch of environmentalists come in here and tell
farmers to clean up their act, the hair stands up on the back of
their neck and they get upset."
Despite the new
gains in water quality in the Middle Snake, years of heavy
pollution from all sources, including farm canals, fish farms,
dairies, feedlots and municipal waste plants, have left residents
with a tough legacy to overcome. High nutrient levels, suspended
solids and low oxygen levels in the river now violate the Clean
In an effort to keep the Environmental
Protection Agency at bay, industries in the Magic Valley have
embarked on a "nutrient management" program. Studies have
identified the key sources of pollution, and each industry has
developed plans for cleanup of its share.
beginning, it was always someone else's problem," says Vickie
Traxler, water quality specialist for the state Division of
Environmental Quality in Twin Falls. "But now the attitudes are
Some Boise-area environmental groups
don't think change is rapid enough. They've threatened to sue the
EPA for allowing Clean Water Act violations in the Middle
Groups such as Idaho Rivers United say
they're concerned because state and federal laws don't require
other industries, such as ranching, logging and mining, to comply
with water-quality standards.
EPA officials admit
they lack the staff to provide a constant watch over polluting
industries. Nickie Arnold, environmental protection specialist for
the agency in Boise, says "It's a complaint-driven process - a real
can of worms."