We all had a sense it was coming, but recent articles confirmed it. The growth pressures since COVID-19, the drought and the community housing crisis have the looming potential to change our valley forever. Now is the time to make hard, but crucial, decisions to retain a sustainable, vibrant and healthy valley that we get to call home.

The Wood River Valley is facing a historic drought. The Big Wood drainage (as well as most of Idaho and Oregon) is hovering at just over 20% of average snowpack. This is likely to have a devastating impact on agricultural production, wildfires, streamflows and our wild trout fishery. It is not as if our valley hasn’t survived droughts cycles before; in the 1920s, the stream gauge in Hailey actually read 0 cfs. Nature is very resilient and has an ability to bounce back when left to its own accord, but what many people don’t realize is the tremendous impact the unprecedented growth is having on our valley. It is easy to recognize how development may destroy a favorite view, take away important wildlife habitat or add traffic to our roads, but have you stopped to think about what it does to our already stressed water supply?

Year after year we find ourselves with not enough water—or too much water—in the spring when flooding occurs. And the studies on climate change only predict things getting worse with warmer springs and dryer summers. So what’s the answer? We must bring conservation to the planning table!

The latest Blaine County comprehensive plan shows that the county is only one-third built out—meaning that if nothing is done, our current zoning would allow for a 200% increase in development, mostly in our rural outlying areas. That would mean more sprawl, traffic, habitat destruction and demand on our natural resources, most notably water.

With the current housing crisis, there has been talk that we need to build more to help alleviate the problem. My contention is that more development, especially in the county as it is zoned today, will only make our housing crisis more acute, by building houses that are most likely out of the price range for working residents. Additionally, this development which is commonly referred to as suburban sprawl, demands more services and allows water-guzzling lawns and new wells while increasing impermeable surfaces, all of which have a cumulative negative impact on our already fragile natural water supply.

As we look toward tomorrow, we realize those areas we set aside for wildlife habitat can also help us sustain our valley by balancing the impacts of growth, protecting floodplains and allowing for groundwater recharge, and retaining a vibrant community. The Wood River Land Trust continues working toward identifying and protecting the most important places to provide these benefits. We’re working with local housing agencies and the county to look at creative solutions that demonstrate that open space protection and affordable housing are not mutually exclusive—that smart planning can ensure we can sustain the resources we all depend on. To learn more about our efforts please visit woodriverlandtrust.org.

Scott Boettger is executive director of the Wood River Land Trust.

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