East Fork went dry

A 3-mile stretch of East Fork went dry for more than a day last week, killing thousands of fish, especially rainbow trout.

A property owner on Hyndman View Drive allegedly drew over 1 million gallons from the East Fork of the Big Wood River last Monday to fill a private pond, causing a 3-mile stretch of the channel to go dry for 27 hours.

The incident resulted in a significant trout die-off, according to Balthasar Buhidar, regional quality manager for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. Buhidar said the entire event, which started Monday morning, was captured by the U.S. Geological Survey’s East Fork stream-gauge located off Timberline Road.

“The flow during the dewatering period was essentially zero, except for those areas where water was held in small pools or holes. The [incident] created a fish kill of predominantly rainbow trout,” he said.

Kristine Hilt, floodplain manager for Blaine County Land Use & Building Services, told the Express that the property owner had an 1884 water right for irrigation purposes and a 1985 groundwater right. But neither of those gave the person permission to divert surface water from the river to fill a pond, she said.

“It’s really important to make sure that things like this don’t happen again, and that folks are mindful of the consequences of their actions,” Hilt said. “We have an entire industry based on fishing and river recreation. This is a really low water year—we are far below the median daily discharge—and this was a lot of water [diverted], enough to fill up a small reservoir.”

The property owner in question reached out to the Express on Tuesday with a different story, told on the condition that his name not be used in print. He said Water District 37 Deputy Manager Ryan Fuchs had given him authorization to fill his pond with river water for irrigation purposes.  

“At the bottom of my pond is a pump to irrigate 150 of my trees. I don’t fill my pond just to look at fish—it’s for irrigation, and I do it with permission from the Water District. [Hilt] may not have known that,” he said. “Also, I didn’t take water out until [from] Monday evening until dawn the next morning. My family has pictures to prove that.”

The property owner added that a windstorm with gusts up to 50 mph had knocked down several trees on Saturday and Sunday, temporarily blocking part of the river.

“I don’t want to be accused of killing all of these fish,” he said. “I’m not going to make any assumptions until I have the facts, but saying that I personally dried up the river is untrue. It’s totally impossible.”

The Idaho Department of Water Resources is investigating the possible water diversion.

“We’re gathering information at this point and don’t have much information to share,” department spokesman Aaron Golart said on Tuesday. “There are consequences for diverting water without a water right or altering a stream channel without a permit, but it’s premature to say that’s what occurred here.”

District 37 Watermaster Kevin Lakey said he wasn’t aware of any illegal diversions last week but took responsibility for the incident.

“It appears there has been a miscommunication between me, my staff and [the homeowner]. The miscommunication was my fault,” he said.

Blaine County and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and Idaho Department of Water Resources were originally made aware of the dewatering by neighbors over 3 miles downstream of the diversion point.

“The dead fish behind my house were in a pool as wide as the river and about 40 feet long,” one neighbor, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Express. “The important part is that the river was completely dry for [a day]. No fish can survive that completely unscathed.”

Email the writer: ejones@mtexpress.com

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