For decades the Snake River has been polluted and overallocated, resulting in poor water quality and increasingly declining flows. In some areas, it is now unsafe to recreate in or eat fish from its waters. Additionally, there is virtually no water flowing in some river stretches at times during the year. It is ICL’s mission to “save the Snake,” and return it to a swimmable and fishable river once again.
Springing from its headwaters in eastern Idaho and Wyoming, the upper tributaries of the Snake River boast some of the best fishing on the planet. Downriver and across the state to our border with Oregon, and you have a very different situation. The once-mighty river dwindles to a trickle in places. Hot and full of agricultural and other pollution, algae blooms grow, killing fish and prompting warnings for humans and their pets to stay out of the water.
How Does This Happen?
In the water world, people divide water management into two categories: water quality (is it safe?) and water quantity (is it flowing?). While these categories may make things simpler from a management perspective, they don’t reflect the reality that everything about water is connected. No river system management illustrates this better than the Snake.
The state of Idaho manages the Snake as “two rivers.” The upper Snake is upstream of Milner Dam (located between Twin Falls and Burley in south-central Idaho) and the lower Snake is everything downstream of Milner. This two rivers policy allows for the Snake to literally dry up at Milner Dam. Let that sink in for a minute. The mightiest river in Idaho, and one of the largest rivers in North America, is purposefully dried up every year. Why?
It’s complicated, but in short—it’s an attempt to satisfy all the water rights that are issued out of the Snake and across the Eastern Snake Plain. More than 80% of these are for irrigated agriculture. Spoiler alert: more water rights are issued for water than a typical year provides water for—a situation known as overallocation.
Dilution is the Solution to Pollution… Until There’s No River
Communities, big industries and people all along the Snake River discharge their treated sewage and wastewater into the Snake, and rely on the river’s flows to mix with their treated pollution to keep the river water quality safe enough for people and fish. You may have heard this concept simplified as “dilution is the solution to pollution.” However, when the necessary flows aren’t there, all these discharges contaminate the river. Meanwhile, to try to prevent contamination, communities (ie., taxpayers) upgrade their wastewater treatment plants to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.
As long as Idaho law and rules allow water quality and water quantity to be governed separately, the never-ending cycle of overallocation, pollution, and failing treatments will continue.
Saving the Snake
ICL recognizes the role of the Snake River in the life and livelihoods of Idahoans. It is absolutely integral to Idaho’s economy, but not just because agriculture and other industry needs it. And that’s where we all come in.
ICL’s Snake River campaign is a multi-pronged approach that centers around connecting people and communities to the river in an effort to protect it into the future. We are talking with Idahoans who love the Snake and connecting them with the people who manage it. Together, we will raise our concerns to local, state and federal policy-makers. We will seek legislative solutions. We will litigate when and if necessary. We will literally clean it up. We will make it possible for future generations of Idahoans to continue to thrive because of the Snake— in a way people have for as long as people have inhabited Idaho.
Together, we will “save the Snake.”