Conservation district encourages proactive approachWritten by Christy Hemken
The Bear River in Evanston and the Blacks Fork and Smiths Fork in the Bridger Valley are listed as impaired. “Over here the Blacks and Smiths are listed for E. coli and the Smiths also for habitat degradation, which is basically sediment,” says Kerri. “And the Bear River is listed for sediment.”
She says the last review of the rivers found that they’re not supporting their uses as cold-water fisheries and that aquatic life is suffering from sediment.
“We’ve done a watershed plan on all three of them, and the one in the valley is a combined watershed plan,” says Kerri. “We’ve been trying to implement those through monitoring every year for E. coli and doing chemistry twice a year – once in May and once at the end of August or in September.”
The Bear River is monitored early in the year when the flow is high and again in the fall when water levels are low.
“We’re trying to improve the water quality through cost share programs, like the Septic System Remediation Program that helps homeowners improve septics that are failing and the Animal Feeding Operation Program that assists producers in moving their corrals that are on surface water away so they don’t have direct access to the river,” says Kerri.
“Anything that will improve the water we try to assist producers, landowners and whoever wants to do a project,” she adds.
Water quality monitoring in Bridger Valley began in 2002. “We have quite a bit of data, and this is our fourth year implementing the watershed plan,” comments Kerri.
Evidence of change isn’t expected in the near future, because it’s said improvements can take up to 13 years to show effect. “It’s really hard to tell if there’s improvement, and it also depends on the water year. This year we had a lot of water and our results have been a lot lower than in the past.”
Kerri says at the present time the listings don’t mean many restrictions on agriculture operations. “DEQ will come in and write a TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load), and once they do that, if someone decides to enforce it that might affect producers because then they’ll have to move their corrals or homeowners will have to improve septics,” she explains. “Right now improvements are voluntary, and that means they also qualify for financial assistance. Once they’re issued a violation by DEQ they’re no longer eligible for grant money – they have to take care of it on their own.”
She says that’s why the district has been trying to be proactive. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with the new administration, it’s voluntary now, but it may not be in the future, and there are always the environmental groups out there that are trying to get rid of ranching.”
The Conservation District has put out a lot of educational information to let landowners know what’s going on. “But it’s hard to change, and hard to find the time,” says Kerri. “And even though they get the cost share they have to come up with the other percentage.”
The district offers a 50/50 cost share on animal feeding operation improvements and three tiers of financial assistance for septic improvements, ranging from 75 to 25 percent, depending on the extent of the problem.
In addition to water quality work, the district has an extensive education program. “We’re really trying to get our name out there by working with schools,” says Kerri.
This year a new adopt-a-rancher program will begin in the Fort Bridger Elementary School, which is also beginning Ag in the Classroom this year led by fifth grade teacher Toni Martin.
The district also just began education assistance and conservation assistance grants. “The conservation grants are for any organization to do projects that benefit the environment,” explains Kerri. “We give three $1,000 grants each year.”
She says the district began the education assistance grants this year after they realized that some classes weren’t planning to take outdoor field trips this year because of cost. “We decided to make grants available to schools for outdoor activities, because some kids are never exposed to that otherwise.”
Moving into the future, the district is working on its long-range plan for 2010 through 2015. It’s also considering the addition of a range monitoring specialist to assist producers with permit renewals, grazing plans and rangeland monitoring.
“We’re trying to be proactive,” says Kerri of the district’s goals. “We’re trying to get producers, landowners and homeowners involved in what we’re doing so they can get educated and make improvements on their own, because we don’t know what will happen in the future.”
“We’d really like to get our rivers off the impaired list. I don’t know if it’s possible, but that’s our ultimate goal and anything we can do to clean them up even a little bit will be good,” says Kerri. “We encourage people to be more conscientious about what they do on the ground and educate themselves to see what they can do better.”