This week (March 6-12, 2022) is National Groundwater Awareness Week, an annual observance to highlight the responsible development, management, and use of groundwater. ICL will be doing a series of blog posts this week to highlight Idaho’s precious groundwater resources.
In southern Idaho, the magic of water can be seen along the Snake River Canyon with impacts big and small. The Snake River and its aquifer provide drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people, irrigate the state’s agricultural heartland, and provide habitat to some of Idaho’s iconic wildlife.
The region itself boasts some spectacular vistas – deep canyons of desert basalt, waterfalls plummeting from great heights, and craggy cliffs reflected in crystal clear springs. As we inch closer to spring, it’s time to start planning your next adventure to the Snake River Canyon!
Tucked into a bend of Idaho’s Snake River is Blue Heart Springs, an oasis that truly earns its enchanting name. This sapphire spring is hidden about halfway between Hagerman and Buhl and is only accessible by water transportation, but it’s worth the extra work to get there. As you float on your paddleboard and peer into the piercing blue waters below – you’ll see crystal clear spring water bubbling up from the bottom. The rugged cliffs rising from the turquoise waters are reflected in the clear water, and if you turn your eyes to the skies – you may spot a bird of prey soaring among the thermals overhead.
On the paddle out to Blue Heart Springs, those that take to the water will pass the outlet for Box Canyon Springs, one of the seven units that make up Thousand Springs State Park. Earl M. Hardy Box Canyon Springs Nature Preserve is located near Wendell and is easy to find on GPS. It is also well signed from the highway, but make sure to bring $5 to park there. From there, a trail will lead you to a lookout that boasts views of a canyon with aqua blue waters glistening below. Before you begin your trek down into the canyon itself, take a look around – you’re likely to see yellow-bellied marmots scurrying amongst the landscape. On your way down, the sound of rushing water will signal that you‘re getting close to your destination. The mist from a 20-foot waterfall will envelop you as a refreshing reward for your hard work. When you’ve finished admiring the falls, you can continue walking down the lush path to another bright blue pool.
Also hidden in the Snake River’s desert landscape near Hagerman is Ritter Island, another unit of Thousand Springs. Summer is a great time to take a dip into the crystal clear waters here, where you’ll emerge to the surface surrounded by walls of basalt towering around you. Surrounding waterfalls also dominate the landscape. A hike on Kelton Trail or walk to Bonnie View Lookout are great ways to get out to this spring.
These hidden oases may seem like magic, and leave you asking – is this a miracle or a mirage? The answer lies beneath your feet – in our groundwater.
Groundwater is water held underground in the soil or in pores and crevices in rock – a formation known as an aquifer. The Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer (ESPA) is the largest aquifer in Idaho and holds value beyond measure. Along with providing drinking water for more than 300,000 Idahoans and being vital to the region’s agriculture industry, the ESPA feeds these turquoise springs and pools – giving you a refreshing escape from the unforgiving desert heat in the summer.
Although these wondrous waters seem to be a perfect example of purity, beneath the crystal clear surface lies a dirty reality: declining groundwater quality. The groundwater in the ESPA is contaminated by pollutants from excess fertilizers, animal manure, and other sources in amounts that far exceed what typical crops can uptake. This ‘extra’ nitrogen and phosphorus being put on the land is then susceptible to leach into our groundwater.
The good news – there are many ongoing efforts to address the problem. The Idaho Conservation League has been engaged in a multi-year campaign to restore the Snake River in southern Idaho to a swimmable and fishable condition, with a key objective of this campaign focused on protection and restoration of groundwater quality.
National Groundwater Awareness Week poses a perfect opportunity to reflect on the Magic Valley’s groundwater quality issues and the solutions that are within our grasp. Exploring some of these mystifying oases can not only ignite one’s sense of adventure, but remind us why these places are so worthy of protection.
Whether you take a springtime hike to the Snake River Canyon to see birds of prey soaring above you, or take a dip this summer into a pool of clear, cool spring-fed water – take a moment to remember what you cannot see that is making these ecosystems possible: groundwater.
The Snake River is far too important to allow it to continue to be degraded in a manner that will have lasting effects on our economy, community health, fisheries and wildlife. Take action and let your state legislators know that you want to see a cleaner Snake River!