Written by Matt Green-Trout Unlimited-Idaho Water and Habitat Program
Upper Salmon Project Manager
Jerry Myers is a former Trout Unlimited project manager that lives along Indian Creek, a tributary to the Salmon River. Located in the remote Salmon River Mountains of Central Idaho, every spring as the small stream swells with runoff, he and his family observe wild steelhead spawning. Most years, they find several redds and get to watch as the fish build their nests and lay their eggs in the pristine, cold waters that Indian Creek provides. Later that year as their offspring hatched and moved downstream, Jerry observed something that he knew to be problematic. The fish were in an irrigation ditch that would be turned off as soon as the irrigation season ended, stranding those fish, and ending their seaward journey far too soon. Jerry describes, “Arguably, Indian Creek on the Salmon River is one of the toughest drainages in Idaho to support irrigated pastures. It’s steep, it’s confined in a narrow canyon and until recently, seven ditch diversions totally de-watered the stream…” The ditch irrigates several small pastures for downstream landowners. Jerry adds, “100-year-old practices had to change.” Indian Creek not only provides ideal habitat for steelhead but also has populations of juvenile Chinook Salmon, Bull Trout and Westslope Cutthroat Trout. As temperatures increase in the Salmon River during the summer months the cold waters of Indian Creek provide a refuge for native fish.
Over several years, Jerry and I were able to convince many landowners into partnering in an irrigation project that would help eliminate fish entrainment in their ditch systems. The timing had to be just right as all landowners had to be onboard with the concept in order for it to be successful. “The agreement to work together and share a common fish screened diversion took two decades,” Jerry says, “That is the reality of working in western watersheds, it takes time as well as an understanding of the local challenges. Trout Unlimited was here for the long haul.”
In the spring of 2021, after several years of landowner negotiations, funding requests (Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Funds, U.S. Fish and Wildlife funding, and landowner match), permit applications, and designs (Natural Resource Conservation Services), we were finally able to implement the project. This included a fish screen provided by Idaho Department of Fish and Game and a new buried irrigation pipeline that provided gravity fed irrigation for all the landowners.
Not only does this new system keep fish from entering the irrigation system and dying, but it also gives the landowners a low maintenance, efficient irrigation system that can double as a way to fight ever increasing forest fire threats -a true win-win for all involved. Jerry says it takes, “Patience, perseverance, collaboration and an organization willing to take the lead.” Along with help from landowners and partners mentioned above, the Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Program provided instrumental assistance with design review and permitting for this project. We are excited to finally see the completion of this project in our home waters.