Legacy Project water moving in Bellevue Triangle

District 37/37M Watermaster Kevin Lakey measures water near the end of the 45 Canal in the Bellevue Triangle of southern Blaine County. The water, donated to the Wood River Legacy Project, is moving in new directions to benefit fish, wildlife and down-basin irrigators. (photo by Greg Stahl)

Irrigation canals stemming from the Big Wood River in southern Blaine County form an intricate water delivery system. The Wood River Legacy Project is working to return some of that water to the region's rivers. (photo by Greg Stahl)

By Greg Stahl, IRU

The Wood River Legacy Project is becoming reality, and there’s water flowing to prove it.

On Wednesday, July 8, District 37/37M Watermaster Kevin Lakey emerged from his big white pickup on an obscure dirt road in Blaine County’s Bellevue Triangle, a sweep of farmland and homes framed by Gannett Road to the east, state Highway 75 to the west and Highway 20 to the south.

Lakey ambled across the road to an irrigation diversion where water was flowing into a road-side ditch.

“That’s Legacy water,” he said with a nod, then knelt in the grass by the diversion to measure the water’s depth: 3 inches, which translates into about 1.6 cubic feet per second, slightly more than should be delivered after ground water losses to the canal system are calculated.

This irrigation season is the Wood River Legacy Project’s second of an initial five approved by the Idaho Legislature, and water donors in the Wood River Valley are proving the innovative program can succeed. The 3 inches running in an otherwise dry ditch in the Bellevue Triangle might not look like much, but it doesn’t look like nothing either. It’s real water, and it’s moving in new directions in the interest of benefitting fish, wildlife and downstream irrigators in the Big and Little Wood river basins.

On May 12, the 37/37M Water Board voted unanimously, with one abstention by a District 45 Canal Company representative, to approve all proposed donations to the Legacy Project this year. That translated into a jump from seven individual rights donated totaling 0.52 cfs to 23 individual rights donated totaling 2.138 cfs.

All of the water rights donated to the Legacy Project thus far are upstream of the District 45 Canal, which diverts water from the Big Wood River in Bellevue. Donations to the Legacy Project made above the 45 diversion go into the canal and are funneled through the canal system to a groundwater sink near the headwaters of Silver Creek. The water then reemerges in Silver Creek, an entirely spring-fed stream, and it then benefits the creek’s world-class fishery.

Donations made below the District 45 Canal will be ushered downstream via a bypass canal and deposited back in the Big Wood River and, eventually, Magic Reservoir.

As the Legacy Project is in the second year of its initial five-year operational period approved by the Idaho Legislature, Lakey said there are a few things he would like to see sorted out. For one, he would like to see it made possible for permanent donations to be made.

“It’s going really well, but I have concerns about the water that’s being delivered and whether it’s going to stay in the Legacy Project,” he said. “For the project to succeed there’s going to have to be some kind of carrot out there for people to donate the water for good the way conservation easements are set up for family farms.”

The prospect for permanent donations is something Idaho Rivers United intends to address when the legislation comes up for renewal during the 2012 legislative session, but, even so, it is unmistakable that the Legacy Project is beginning to work as intended.

“This is great progress that exceeds our goal of at least tripling the first year’s success,” said Andy Munter, a member of the Wood River Legacy Project advisory board and a Ketchum business owner. “But we’re hoping to ramp it up even more in 2010, and we’ll need to renew a number of the new donations, which were made for one year.”

The Legacy Project is an innovative program unanimously approved by the Idaho Legislature in March 2007 following 18 months of bipartisan work. Managed by Idaho Rivers United, the program provides for donated water rights to increase flows in the Big Wood River, Silver Creek and the Little Wood River. Unique to the legislation is a provision providing the donated water to be used for recreational uses in the Wood River Valley and then revert to agricultural uses as it leaves the valley for the lower basin.

“We’re trying to move water downhill,” said Carl Pendleton, a member of the Legacy Advisory Board and Lincoln County representative of the project. “The result is increased flows in the river and more water for crops downstream.”

Near the end of the District 45 Canal in the Bellevue Triangle of southern Blaine County, Watermaster Kevin Lakey explains how water is moving and how the Wood River Legacy Project is altering the way that water moves. (photo by Greg Stahl)