Water is Life

Our family migrated from Denmark to Utah, and then to a remote part of Idaho known as the Lemhi Valley in 1915.  With the help of a local Shoshoni named Sacajawea, Lewis and Clark crossed the Continental Divide in 1805 into the Lemhi Valley.  In 1855, the Mormons established the Lemhi Mission, installed irrigation ditches and planted vegetables, which were swiftly wiped out by a plague of grasshoppers the same season.  The Lemhi Tribe drove out the Mormons, and then were regulated to the Fort Hall Reservation in 1868.

The first cattle ranch in the area was established in 1870 by French Joe.  Due to the rugged topography, climate, distance to market and resilience of ranch operators, agriculture in the valley survives only through livestock ranches. These ranches are dependent on growing hay to supplement the short season that the cows free-range, with most ranches requiring nearly a thousand tons of hay per year to feed the cattle.   Livestock operations have provided the predominant employment and household income to the community for over 100 years.

The Whittaker and Peterson families have been ranching in the Lemhi Valley for over a century.  This is a dry country covered by sagebrush, and water to recharge the local aquifer and irrigate the hay pastures is critical to survival.  This valley is surrounded by the Lemhi Range to the west and the Bitterroot Range to the east, both providing a significant amount of snowmelt in the spring.  This water creates essential creeks and springs which flow through the rangelands and into the Lemhi River.

Our families established their water rights even before the Forest Service was established in 1934.  Being able to use the snow melt, (called high water by the ranchers) has always been critical to support and feed the livestock.  Early on, the ranchers established and maintained waterway connections between the creeks and tributaries to irrigate their hay pastures and cows.

Cousin Ed reiterated “If we don’t have high water these ranches can’t exist”.  This would not only impact a few ranches, it could bring down the entire community.

Here in the Puget Sound, we have Orcas dying because there are not enough Chinook salmon to support them.  Population growth has spawned warmer waters where the salmon return to spawn.  A thousand miles away in the Lemhi Valley, new regulations are being applied to the ranchers which require a higher streamflow to allow migration of adult spring chinook salmon.  If these ranchers are forced to relinquish their high- water rights to support increased streamflow, their haying operations fail, their livestock perish, and the ranches will cease to exist.

I have performed Coho spawning counts in my home basin of the Tolt River for over 15 years.  I have roots in the Lemhi Valley going back over 100 years.  This is a dilemma that I don’t have the answers for, but feel the struggle deeply.

What are your thoughts?

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