Guest Opinions

How one federal program helps boost the future and economy of a Butte County community

Rose Bernal
Rose Bernal

The economic prosperity and, in some cases, the general livelihood of a small, rural Idaho community hinges on the acquisition of a single alfalfa field.

As a Butte County commissioner, it’s my job to ensure that residents have clean drinking water and that children have safe places to recreate. Through a collaborative group consisting of irrigators, politicians and local concerned citizens, we believe we’ve come up with a plan to achieve all of that. However, the plan depends on Congress reauthorizing a vital grant program: The Land Water and Conservation Fund.

In the summer of 2016, more than 150 domestic wells in the Big Lost River Valley between Moore and Arco dried up. The cost to drill a new well in the region varies from $7,000 to $10,000. Some residents opted to truck water in to their property. Others were forced to sell their homes. Studies from the Idaho Department of Water Resources, as well as years of well logs, showed that the Lost River basin aquifer had been steadily decreasing for decades.

At the same time, according to the last U.S. Census, Butte County is one of two counties in Idaho losing population. We recognize many factors may contribute to decreases in population. However, we decided to do something, to fight for our small community. We came up with a solution.

One reason so many Big Lost River Valley wells go dry is that we have absolutely no water recharging them. At one time, the Big Lost River flowed from the Mackay Reservoir through Moore and Arco and disappeared out into the desert. Now, in drought years, we do not see the river at all. Rather, it is diverted into canals to meet the needs of irrigators. Considering the Lost River Valley has had close to 30 years of drought, we rarely if ever see the river flow through town. This and other circumstances has turned our once-lush valley into sagebrush, and we have no water recreation opportunities in Butte County.

To remedy these problems, we created a collaborative group made up of many stakeholders. Together, we came up with a solution to help our community. Our goal is to use donated water rights to make a fishing stream that includes recharge ponds, a walking trail, a campground, and possibly a wading pool. Our stream would be about a mile long and would allow locals and visitors the opportunity to fish in the Big Lost River Basin. A large piece of the property is on a Fish and Wildlife Preserve, which would be transformed into a wildlife haven with year-round water.

In order to make this project work, we need to purchase property adjacent to the preserve. This property — currently growing alfalfa — has water rights, and is all we need to make this project a reality. The only grant program that can assist us in purchasing this parcel is the Land and Wildlife Conservation Fund (LWCF). And yet, the LWCF is in jeopardy of expiring on Sept. 30 without actions by Congress. Our entire project hinges on the whether the LWCF is reauthorized.

We are a rural community in need, and we are working hard to help ourselves. LWCF dollars are imperative to our project, and we are hopeful that Congress will reauthorize and fully fund this vital program.

Bernal is a Butte County commissioner.