Idaho learns to share two rivers

  • Map of Henry's Fork and Falls Rivers

    Diane Sylvain
  • The river that inspired a consensus effort: the Henry's Fork

    Jeff Grass

Note: this article is one of several feature stories in a special issue about collaboration in the West.

ASHTON, Idaho - In a potato-farm warehouse, about 50 members of the Henry's Fork Watershed Council sit in a circle of folding chairs. They stare quietly at the floor or close their eyes in silence.

"I hate this part," a woman whispers to her neighbor. "It's a waste of time." The neighbor scowls her into silence.

A middle-aged woman in a denim shirt speaks first. "See those things?" She points to a wall where tractor fan belts, shovels and axes hang in orderly rows. "Two years ago we wouldn't have dared to meet within reach of them. Someone might have been killed."

Laughter skitters through the group. Memories still smart from earlier, uglier meetings of the area's water users. The pain of watching disagreements escalate into outright acrimony led to this cautious coalition of farmers, ranchers, kayakers, fishing aficionados and agency officials. The circular seating arrangement and the time designated for reflection follow the ideas of M. Scott Peck, who wrote the bestselling The Road Less Traveled before advancing his ideas on building community in A World Waiting to be Born. Peck says conflict must be acknowledged, that utopian communities faltered because people buried their differences in trying to adhere to a unifying idea or religion.

The council has spent the morning hearing concerns ranging from conserving water for farms to closing roads in grizzly habitat. In the afternoon, they break into study clusters that each produce a summary to be read to the larger group. Finally, the group observes a time of silence and goes on to draft a consensus statement on each issue.

The Bad Old Days

The 2 million-acre Henry's Fork watershed in southeastern Idaho is dominated by farmland and national forest. It is its rivers - the Henry's Fork of the Snake, a blue-ribbon fly-fishing river, and the spring-fed Fall River, which starts in Yellowstone National Park - that have attracted tourists, recreationists and growing controversy.

Each use of the rivers bumps up against another. For Janice Brown, who has run a guest lodge on the Henry's Fork for 20 years, the competitive use was the long-established diversion of water from the river for farms. Her involvement with watershed politics started in the late 1980s, when she joined with fishing interests to sit on a Department of Water Resources advisory committee.

"Every meeting, there was a fight," she said. "I'd get sick to my stomach before going." Drought had made farmers particularly sensitive to water issues, and Brown remembered standing in a line to register for a hearing while watching irrigators come down the street "like a mob."

Then, in 1992, the Henry's Fork suffered a man-made catastrophe that focused everyone's attention: The Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Bureau of Reclamation drew down the Island Park Reservoir to kill "trash fish" like chubs and suckers. Many fish died, and in two weeks, 50,000 to 100,000 tons of sediment from the reservoir's bottom headed downstream. The usually crystalline Henry's Fork ran brown with mud; the trout fishermen who buoy the economy of towns like Island Park didn't arrive that summer.

When the state proposed forming a committee to oversee the Henry's Fork watershed, Brown, who was also a staffer with the nonprofit Henry's Fork Foundation, offered to facilitate the group. And so did Dale Swensen, the executive director of the Fremont-Madison Irrigation District. "No one could believe it - two citizen groups taking over something agencies had always done," says Brown.

Now, there are as many as 150 participants in the coalition, including river-runners, loggers, farmers and land managers. Darrel Reinke, a coalition member who publishes the local weekly Fall River Review, says that although the group has no actual authority, "it has a moral authority. It begins to be a public institution on a local level. Some watchers of Western issues have said it's time for us out here to grow up and have our own institutions."

Odd bedfellows

Once a month, Idaho Falls sign-maker Jon Ochi locks his shop for the day and drives north to attend the council. An avid kayaker, Ochi made a run for the Idaho Legislature through eddies of water controversy. As a first-time Democratic candidate in a Republican stronghold, Ochi lost but attracted enough votes to make a surprising showing, and, from opponents, denunciations that he was an eco-extremist.

Although the council's early Boise hearings were acrimonious, Ochi said, "We saw each other face to face, not just as people we were debating in the newspapers." For the earnest, reserved Ochi, that's the group's continuing attraction.

Targhee National Forest hydrologist Ronna Monte makes sure she gets to the meetings so she can catch opportunities to "sit in the corner and talk." She says when news got around that water adjudication in national forests was under revision, "people became frightened the Forest Service would grab their water. I invited a Forest Service specialist to come address the group. Hearing the truth put fears to rest."

Trust in the group

The philosophy of the Henry's Fork Watershed Council holds that "None of us is as smart as all of us." Brown's training with Scott Peck's Foundation for Community Encouragement focused on creating a "safe zone" where people could tell what they thought without being challenged or scorned. The circular seating arrangement encourages a feeling of equality, she says, and the time of silence gives members a chance to quiet their minds and collect their thoughts.

The two leaders have widely different backgrounds. Originally from Los Angeles, Brown has spent the last 20 years immersed in Idaho conservation issues. In the bad old days, a farmer compared her to Saddam Hussein, but her respect for differing views eventually won appreciation from both sides.

Her co-faciliator, Swensen, a Mormon father of six, says he felt relieved when Brown asked him, "Can't we try to get along?" Swensen says he seeks protection for irrigators, but when the council can't find consensus, he urges it to proceed in one of two ways: "Either back off, or get more educated on the issue. Lots of times we find that when we get more educated, we can set aside philosophical differences and get on with things. Recently, I was called an environmentalist. It was quite a shock to my system."

An incident last summer showed how the link between Brown and Swensen works. Normally by midsummer, farmers along the Henry's Fork are irrigating, thereby pulling cooler, deeper water from Henry's Lake into the river. But continual rain had made irrigation unnecessary, and by July, water in the Henry's Fork was heated to near-lethal levels for trout.

Brown called Swensen and told him how bad it was for fish; hearing her concerns, the irrigation district and BuRec immediately sent 200 cubic-feet per second of cool water down the river, to be captured downstream. In the past, such an action might have taken a week or two - and the lives of many fish - says Brown.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the council is its consensus on the salmon issue, a particularly sensitive one in Idaho. Though salmon have never made it as far as eastern Idaho - they return to central Idaho - recovery of the species may put demands on reservoirs throughout the state through experimental "flushes' to speed smolts on their way to the Pacific Ocean. Farmers have worried that taking storage water for fish might set a precedent or be the first step toward condemning water rights to satisfy the Endangered Species Act.

Now, the council has agreed that the eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers play the biggest role in fish destruction and should be modified. The group has also agreed that plans for salmon recovery should not require extreme sacrifice from any one interest or economic sector.

As the council grows in reputation, its very success could be a hazard, some observers say. "We may become so taken with being the model that we don't do the hard work, which is to air conflict," says newspaperman Reinke. "We may decide not to bring up issues that might splinter the group."

Ed Clark, chairman of the board of directors of the Fremont-Madison Irrigation District and another member of the group, remains optimistic. As part of the federal effort to downsize government, he says, BuRec is considering transferring title of two dams to the irrigation district he heads, and it's not just because the district has shown it can save a third in maintenance costs. A major reason is that the watershed council will play a key role.

"I think we can dispel the worries of those concerned about the changeover," he says. "We've made excellent friends with people on the other side."

For more information, contact Henry's Fork Watershed Council, P.O. Box 852, Ashton, ID 83420 (208/652-3567).

The writer works in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

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