May 03, 2018

WRC Returns Water to Vital Sawtooth Streams

Photography | Photo by Kirk Anderson

Early this spring, Western Rivers Conservancy celebrated a major success in Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley when we conserved the 369-acre Goat Falls Ranch and transferred the ranch’s water rights to the state to keep them permanently in-stream. The effort will improve flows in two critical headwater tributaries of the Salmon River and add 369 acres to the spectacular Sawtooth National Recreation Area. This marks the first time the Idaho Water Resources Board has acquired water rights for the purpose of dedicating them permanently in-stream, an approach we hope serves as a model for balancing agricultural needs with native species recovery.

Goat and Meadow Creeks, the streams that flow through the ranch, are both crucial, ice-cold creeks that tumble from the Sawtooth Mountains and provide salmon and steelhead with reliable, cold water—the homecoming they need after their epic, 900-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean. 

WRC is focusing on these headwater streams because they are a key to sus-taining the Salmon River’s native fish in the face of rising water temperatures, low flows and earlier spring runoff. Goat and Meadow Creeks once contained some of the highest densities of rearing salmon in the Columbia Basin, but water withdraws and grazing have undermined their health. Despite this, the streams are still among the best nurseries for salmon and steelhead on the upper Salmon River. 

In 2017, WRC purchased the ranch, along with its 12.08 CFS of water rights, providing the rare opportunity to protect habitat and enhance stream-flows for fish. While WRC owned the ranch, we spearheaded creative solutions with adjoining landowners to meet local water needs while placing significant flows back in-stream.

As part of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, the ranch will be protected from development and allowed to recover from grazing. Additionally, the Forest Service and other partners will implement priority habitat restoration and monitoring projects for the benefit of fish and wildlife. The ranch also hosts important winter range for elk and habitat for 18 sensitive species, including gray wolf, sage grouse, bald eagle, peregrine falcon and Columbia spotted frog.

With cold water, restored habitat and improved flows, Goat Falls Ranch has a far greater chance at again becoming a haven for salmon, steelhead and wildlife, with benefits extending across the vast Snake and Columbia basins.

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