Editor’s note: This posting was authored by Pat Ford. Many years ago, Pat served as the executive director of ICL. Most recently, he was the executive director for Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. Pat lives in Boise, Idaho, and periodically contributes to the ICL blog.
"Idaho’s Sewer System is the Snake River."
This was the headline of Richard Manning’s front-page story in High Country News on Aug. 4, 2014. The story’s worth reading more than once. And on Saturday, Nov. 14, he’ll be in Boise to talk about it.
I doubt many Idahoans active in or sympathetic to conservation think of the Snake as a sewer system for southern Idaho. "The Snake has pollution problems we should fix," is probably more how we might put it. And Idahoans generally will disagree with or just disbelieve Manning’s assertion.
Yet Manning makes the case that it is accurate. Near the end of his story, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, Greg Clark, makes the sewage connection between the Snake River’s industrial agriculture and Idaho Power Company’s three Hells Canyon reservoirs:
"Clark corrects the impression that the range of pollutants from industrial ag goes completely untreated. He sees the entire Snake as a sewage system, with the reservoirs at the bottom end acting as de facto sewage-treatment lagoons. Clark explains it using the terminology of that science: the three huge reservoirs/lagoons provide primary, secondary and tertiary treatment. He actually uses those terms.
“‘We should show the videos of what the bottom of Brownlee looks like,’ he says. `It looks like a sewage-treatment facility. Fine-grained muck. It’s really nasty stuff. It looks like the bottom of a septic tank. We took a rover and went down and took videos, and there’s all these little organisms down there decomposing stuff and there is gas bubbling up. It’s nasty. It’s nasty.’"
ICL’s staff provided Manning information and leads during his research, and the issues he raises are at the heart of ICL’s water work in southern Idaho. Conservation work in Idaho is tough across the board, but I think work on water in southern Idaho is toughest. Its core issues run directly through Idaho industrial-scale agriculture, whose influences on law, politics and people are formidable.
Manning lives near Missoula and writes about water, food, forests and conservation in nine books so far. He is one of our region’s most far-seeing citizens. On Nov. 14, he will keynote the annual dinner and meeting of the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils, at the Basque Center in downtown Boise, 6-9pm. The title of his talk is, "The Burden and Promise of Our Great Rivers." I am sure the Snake will be featured, and sure he will make us think, clearly and urgently, about our great river, where it’s headed, and what we owe it. Tickets and information are available from Doug Paddock.