Warm Springs Creek was flowing almost black last week as heavy rains led to ash and sediments from the Beaver Creek Fire flowing into the Big Wood River and its tributaries. This photo was taken at the confluence of Warm Springs Creek and the Big Wood River.
Courtesy photos by Steve Dondero
As ash and sediment from this summer’s Beaver Creek Fire flow from heavy rains into the Big Wood River, an initiative is just beginning that will ascertain the condition of the river and its tributaries and identify ways to restore the system to a more healthy condition.
The initiative, a joint project of Trout Unlimited and the Wood River Land Trust, was planned long before the Beaver Creek Fire, but experts involved in the study believe it is especially timely because of the potentially detrimental effects from post-fire runoff.
“This has been in the works for about a year,” Trout Unlimited’s Big Wood River Project Manager Chad Chorney said Thursday. “It’s timely in a sense that this has been a very hard year on the Big Wood, not only because of the after-effects of the fire but because of the low snowpack and low flow this year.”
The effects on the river system of recent ash and sediment runoff from fire areas are yet unknown, although some fish kills have been reported in the Warm Springs Creek drainage area, where water sometimes runs almost black.
“It has hurt the fishery,” said Daphne Muehle, director of development for the Wood River Land Trust. “Talking to people with more expertise than me, that’s the conclusion we can draw. There’s evidence of dead fish.”
Chorney said the overall effects of the runoff likely won’t be known until next spring. He said it’s premature to say the runoff will be devastating to the fishery but his “gut feeling right now” is that it will cause harm.
“Warm Springs is the biggest culprit,” Chorney said. However, he noted that streams such as Trail Creek and the East Fork of the Big Wood River have been muddy at times because of the rains but are free of ash because they weren’t in the fire area.
“There’s places the fish can seek refuge,” he said. “In the short term, they can withstand some pretty harsh conditions.”
Chorney said he’s heard reports of fish kills in the Warm Springs Creek and Baker Creek areas but hasn’t observed any himself in lower areas of the river.
“I’ve been walking the river periodically and I’ve not seen any dead fish,” he said. “It’s pretty turbid; it’s improved a little bit, but I don’t think it’s over yet.”
Big Wood initiative
The project, officially called the Big Wood Home Rivers Initiative, is part of the national Trout Unlimited organization’s Home Waters Initiative program. For the study, Trout Unlimited employees Chorney, who lives in Picabo, and Mark Davidson, who lives in Hailey and is director of the Idaho Water Projects, will establish an office in Hailey.
While the health of the river in the aftermath of this year’s problems is yet unknown, Chorney said that “overall the Big Wood is a good healthy fishery, but there’s parts of the equation that need improvement.”
A joint news release from Trout Unlimited and the Land Trust states that the study is being conducted to “restore the Big Wood River to its full potential as a healthy river ecosystem and popular wild trout fishery.” It states further that the initiative “aims to enhance and maintain the health of the Big Wood River and its tributaries through a long-term effort to restore habitat, reconnect tributaries to the main-stem, promote fish passage and maintain critical in-stream flows.”
Scott Boettger, executive director of the Land Trust, is quoted as stating that “the after-effects of the recent Beaver Creek Fire, including mudslides and siltation, as well as low flows and elevated water temperatures, are timely reminders that the Big Wood faces significant challenges.”
“These human and natural occurrences have long-term effects on our fishery, our local economy and our well-being,” Boettger stated. “We need a comprehensive strategy to deal with them, and who better to partner with than Trout Unlimited, which can bring its national expertise to bear on our regional issues.”
The first phase of the initiative will be focused on a comprehensive assessment of the river system. Once complete, the assessment will be used to develop and prioritize future restoration efforts, such as “on-the-ground” habitat improvements, tributary improvements and development of responsible land- and water-use plans.
“We are at a critical time for translating scientific knowledge into impact on a strategic and broad scale, creating a healthy and resilient watershed for the benefit of our community and that of fish and wildlife,” said Steve Strandberg, who serves as a board member to both Trout Unlimited and the Land Trust. “It’s important to our organizations and our donors that we leave a legacy of protected land and water for future generations to enjoy as we do today.”
The news release states that Trout Unlimited and the Land Trust will be working in partnership with other entities and organizations to achieve the goals of the initiative. Partners will include The Nature Conservancy, Idaho Conservation League, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Blaine County.
“We know that broad, connected landscapes and healthy watersheds are essential to the survival of plants and wildlife,” Chorney said. “Our partnerships are key to carrying out a cohesive vision. We will need the help of our partners as well as homeowners, landowners, municipalities and the county to achieve these conservation goals.”
Terry Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org