Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, No more ignoring the obvious: Idaho sucks itself dry.
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.
Suddenly, when 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 patch.
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 Falls.
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 river.
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."
Campbell, a 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, complex puzzle."
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 dirt.
"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 talking tons."
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 property.
"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 Water Act.
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.
"In the 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 changing."
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 Snake.
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."