Water guaranteed for rivers in Owyhee Canyonlands

The canyons of the Owyhee have many mysterious and beautiful places to explore. Photo by Greg Stahl.

The Wild and Scenic rivers of the Bruneau and Owyhee river basins are guaranteed to have water flowing in perpetuity after a district judge approved federal reserve water rights for 16 river and creeks. 

This was the final step to implementing river-related policies following adoption of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009. The act included legislation called the Owyhee Initiative, which was built through eight years of collaboration with ranchers, conservationists, tribes, local elected officials and others. The law designated 517,000 acres of public land as wilderness and 325 miles of waterways as Wild and Scenic rivers.

The Bureau of Land Management adopted its Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Plan in April 2015. More recently, on Sept. 29, Snake River Basin Adjudication Presiding Judge Eric Wildman approved the water rights that will guarantee these one-of-a-kind rivers and streams continue to flow.

"This is a win-win for everybody," said IRU Executive Director Kevin Lewis. "It protects water for farmers and ranchers below the Wild and Scenic sections, and it provides critical protection for flows that benefit fish, wildlife and plants in the canyon country."

There is not an abundance of agriculture in the upper Bruneau or Owyhee river basins that threaten stream flows in the canyons down below. Lewis said, however, that he and others were concerned about the amount of private land in those areas that could eventually be developed.
"The fear was that 50 or 100 years from now ground water pumping in the upper basin could deplete springs that would then impact flows in these delicate rivers," Lewis said. 

IRU spent eight years at the collaborative table that the made Owyhee Initiative possible and since its adoption in 2009 has continued to advocate for common-sense policies that implement protections in a way that benefit recreation users, ranchers, farmers and the fragile desert ecology.

IRU staff and our conservation partners worked with the State of Idaho and the federal government to help ensure that the final water rights agreement met with the intent of the 2006 Owyhee Initiative Wild and Scenic Rivers Water Rights Agreement.