Portneuf River Project
Vision makes the difference for the future. Vision allows us to restore, repair, build upon and improve that which we have in order to preserve for our progeny that which many of us only dream.
Americas rivers are the lifeblood of the lands through which they flow. Meandering rivers recharge aquifers and their flood plains provide lush vital habitat for many species of fish and wildlife. These rivers have been harnessed over the centuries for hydropower, agriculture and confined behind dykes to prevent flooding. In recent years many Americans are coming to appreciate the true value of free flowing rivers with stable riparian areas and unrestricted access to healthy unimpeded flood plains. Across the country private landowners, corporations and government entities are working to restore the health of river systems while opportunities exist to do so. Rivers are once again gaining access to their flood plains through the removal of dykes and flood walls. The results not only benefit the river systems but also provide valuable recreation opportunities for present and future generations to enjoy.
Timing is essential in a project to restore a river. It must occur before homes and businesses are built to the banks inside the flood plain. It must occur while the river still either flows inside it’s original banks or can be restored to those banks. It must occur when the opportunity exists to purchase stream access and water rights. It must occur while enough of the river system is healthy enough to thrive and repopulate the rest of the river with fish and wildlife. Such is the case with the Portneuf River in Caribou and Bannock Counties in Idaho.
At the headwaters of this river lies Chesterfield Reservoir which is key to the restoration of this river. It was built to store water for the Portneuf Marsh Valley Canal Company (PMVCC) to use for agricultural purposes. This reservoir is renowned for growing large trout very fast and is a favorite fishing and camping destination. Our vision is to build a year round marina with a restaurant and tackle shop. Camping is presently done on any wide spot not occupied and is haphazard and destructive. Improved camping facilities will be a welcome upgrade that will make the reservoir more inviting for families and clean up the land now littered with improvised fire pits and left behind trash.
With control of the storage rights and control of the water level this reservoir can be managed to provide healthy flows for the river as well as consistently grow trophy trout. This already famous reservoir will rival Henry’s Lake and annually will be worth millions of dollars to Caribou and Bannock counties. All profits from the operation of the campgrounds and marina will be used to fund river restoration projects and maintain a healthy fishery.
The next ten miles of the Portneuf River provides ample long term opportunities for habitat restoration. This section of the river has been channelized to help facilitate the delivery of water downstream to the PMVCC and, until recent years, most of it has been used as a water trough for range cows. The result is that this section of river is inhospitable to trout and contributes to downstream flooding and dewatering of the upper valley because of the high speed flows. In recent years several ranchers along the channel have worked with the Natural Resource and Conservation Service and the IDF&G to build fences to protect the banks from cattle. These fenced sections of river are now enjoying heavy growths of grasses and are becoming stable. Interestingly the original river channel still exists and can be seen in aerial photos meandering next to the present straight channel. Long term hopes are to work with landowners to restore the river to its original course which will help recharge the aquifer, increase spring (groundwater) flows and store water to keep the river itself flowing when rain is scarce in late summer and fall. The valley will once again be green. The river will have access to its historic flood plain and no longer be a source of transported sediment.
The next section of this wonderful river is the poster child for this project and is the inspiration behind the vision. Some twenty years ago a group of sportsmen who called themselves the Friends of the Portneuf, working with the Idaho Fish and Game Department, began a seemingly impossible task. They set out to build fences to restrict river bed and riparian access to domestic farm animals so that the river could heal itself. The task had to seem daunting due to the number of landowners and the length of the river system that they targeted. Perseverance pays off and today most of the river from the Kelly-Toponce Bridge to Mikes Place near Pebble Creek, a distance of almost 10 miles now has healthy, stable stream banks covered with thick grasses and willows and clear cold water that supports a growing population of native Yellowstone Cutthroat trout. These fences are constantly maintained by the Idaho Fish and Game and the South East Idaho Fly Fishers (SEIFF). Landowners have been very cooperative and appreciate the efforts of the volunteers. This section of river proves that the land next to the river corridor, that is maintained for healthy riparian habitat and public access, is more valuable than land that is fenced to the river bank. You only need to look at before and after pictures of this section to realize the value of cooperation and a healthy river system. Clean water, thick grasses, abundant fish, birds, otters and anglers enjoying it all. A true success story with more that can be done. Additional and permanent public access is needed. Stream banks need stabilized in some areas and fence always needs rebuilt.
Downstream from Mikes Place to the town of Lava Hot Springs the river meanders through pasture land and flows through a series of travertine steps. Much of the pasture land is off limits to fishermen and outdoor enthusiasts in order to protect livestock and private property. It is the hopes of the Project sponsors to acquire access to some of this land. There are several access points that do provide limited river access and these are used by the general public. One major tributary, Pebble Creek, flows into this section of river. The last ½ mile is divided into 4 smaller channels used to provide irrigation water for pasture. The result is a system that is inhospitable to migrating fluvial fish. Interestingly this creek holds the most promise as a destination for spawning cutthroats and a subsequent nursery for juvenile fish. Our hope is to work with the landowners to make one of the channels favorable for fish passage by planting willows to provide shade from the sun and shelter from predators and constructing fence to protect the channel banks and vegetation.
The travertine section holds several fairly high drops over rocky steps that prevents the upstream migration of fish. The pools below these small falls hold fish year round. This section has several access points and is a favorite destination for families to enjoy camping and fishing outings. As with the land surrounding Chesterfield Reservoir there are no developed camp sites and use is haphazard to the detriment of the environment. Eventually our vision is to work with the Idaho Parks and Recreation department to develop more improved camping facilities to help protect this section and keep the riparian areas clean.
The river then flows through the City of Lava Hot Springs. We hope that we can work with the city government and the Lava Hot Springs foundation to educate city residents about the value of the river and protect it from harmful chemical spills. It would be beneficial for the city to have a healthy river teaming with large trout for residents and tourists to view and feed from the several bridges in the city. These fish can not move upstream because of a large waterfall and they would provide brood stock to help repopulate the river downstream. The city would also benefit from hiking and biking trails upstream into the travertine section. The recreational and economic possibilities are endless for the city when this happens. Imagine city residents and tourists able to access pristine river sections for hiking, biking and fishing right from the city.
The same holds true of the river downstream to the PMVCC diversion at the highway 30 bridge. The river here again runs through pasture land, much of which is unfenced and provides unrestricted access to cattle. Here the river typically flows clean and clear for about ½ mile below the city then it turns south and disappears around a corner to emerge heading back north loaded with silt. This section of river holds the most promise for immediate restoration work. Fences and bank stabilization along with public access in the form of recreational paths for hiking, biking and fishing access will provide unrivalled economic benefits to Lava Hot Springs and the surrounding area. Riverbank improvements also will help deliver clean, clear, cold river water downstream where it now flows muddy and warm.
At the end of this section is the huge diversion of the Portneuf Marsh Valley Canal Company. Virtually all of the river flows save 10cfs are diverted at this point. During irrigation season most of this flow continues through approximately 23 miles of canal to irrigate cropland between Arimo and Downey. Our vision is to either acquire this land, approximately 5100 acres, or gain conservation easements in order to own the storage rights to Chesterfield Reservoir. A portion of the stored water would then be leased downstream to ensure that healthy flows are maintained all the way to Pocatello. With improved flows and some steam bank work this section of river will produce healthy populations of Cutthroat and Brown trout. Some of the farm land that is taken out of traditional irrigated use will be converted to dry land farming, upland game habitat, shooting preserves and winter range for big game. This is where the partnership with Pheasants Forever, The Mule Deer Initiative, The Sagebrush Step and the Nature Conservancy will prove invaluable. We do not want to dry up the valley around Downey, rather we want to think outside the box to convert it to recreational and conservation uses for the enjoyment of future generations.
From here the river runs past the small town of McCammon and into a narrow valley dotted with small farms and ranchettes. There are a few public access points but not many. The river is known to harbor a fair population of Brown Trout which seem to survive the warmer temps associated with this lower section of river better than other salmonids. Hopefully we will be able to acquire some of this land to provide permanent public access to a very beautiful section of river.
Marsh Creek is a major tributary that joins the river above the town of Inkom. The creek is stressed from severe erosion and siltation and is a huge source of suspended solids in the river. The Portneuf Watershed Advisory Group is currently working on a plan to clean up Marsh Creek so that it will flow clean and clear into the river.
This project is visionary, it is challenging, and it is one that will only benefit present and future generations and improve the health of an entire river ecosystem. Please join us
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