After years of declining flows, increasing development pressures and growing pollution, the Idaho Conservation League recognizes Idaho needs a new approach when it comes to ┬áthe Snake River. And we’re not alone in seeing that.

In many cases, ICL field trips take us to pristine forests, wild rivers and spectacular (potential) wilderness areas. While we certainly enjoy visiting those special places of Idaho, we are also working to better understand the issues and challenges that face other special places in Idaho – places that Idahoans call home. While our forests and rivers contribute to our quality of life, so too does our local environment.

If we are going to successfully restore and improve the Snake River, we must better understand the issues and challenges that impact farmers, canal operators, communities and others who will play an important role in restoring water quality and flow in the Snake River.

Out in the Fields

During the summer of 2018, ICL staff had the opportunity to spend time along the canals and in the fields of the Snake River Plain to better understand agricultural practices and efforts already underway to improve water quality and to ensure a healthy Snake River. We visited with the Twin Falls Canal Company to learn about construction of man-made wetlands to slow down and filter irrigation returns (sediment and nutrient-laden water that flows off crops) before it flows back into the river. These efforts are helping to address some of the challenges that face the Snake River, however the efforts need to be expanded significantly to have the needed impact.

ICL staff also spent time in the field (literally) with representatives from Ballard Farms and their consultant with EarthKnowSys, Inc. Based in Kimberly, Idaho (just east of Twin Falls), Ballard Farms grows beans, alfalfa and malt barley based and is implementing no-till practices to reduce inputs (fuel, fertilizer, water and labor) while increasing outputs and profits, and minimizing soil loss from both wind and water. While no-till practices are not very common in the Snake River Plain, there is potential for the practice to grow in popularity given the potential benefits to water quality and profits.

No-till Agriculture’s Proven Results

Ultimately, the proven results from no-till farming will be the best enticement for other farmers to join the no-till revolution. In many parts of the country, no-till practices have increased dramatically  based on the reduced costs, higher yields and improved environmental outcomes. With some concerted effort on the part of farmers like Ballard Farms and others, we see the potential for this practice to spread on the fields of the Snake River Plain, with benefits to the water quality, the environment, consumers and farmers alike.

Above, ICL central Idaho associate Josh Johnson and senior conservation associate Austin Hopkins use a device to monitor soil compaction in a tilled field versus a field managed with no-till practices. Compaction was significantly less in no-till fields.

Part of the reason for that reduced soil compaction is the management of living soil. Small worm holes are visible in soil (above) that has was managed with no-till techniques. Restoring natural soil function and the living components of soil is one of the key goals of no-till farming. Worms can reduce compaction, increase water infiltration, breakdown organic matter, and improve soil productivity through natural fertilization with castings (a.k.a. worm poop).

Because the fields are not tilled between crops (shown above), the prior year’s barley straw is still present in the field, while the current year’s crop grows beneath.

The healthy tap root of this radish (above) will help to reduce compaction, reach deeper into the soil horizon for water and nutrients and will increase yields.