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Henry's Fork Watershed Council


Eastern Idaho and western Wyoming, on the Henry's Fork of the Snake River

Case Description

Located in eastern Idaho and western Wyoming, the Henry's Fork watershed covers 1.7 million acres and includes part of Yellowstone National Park and the western slope of the Teton Mountains. It is laced with more than 3,000 miles of rivers, streams, and irrigation canals. High mountain streams and abundant springs provide nutrient-rich waters of constant flow and temperature. These conditions sustain populations of fish and wildlife, including several threatened and endangered species.

Three Idaho counties (Fremont, Teton, and Madison) and Wyoming's Teton County lie within the Henry's Fork basin. The combined population of these counties is 40,000. The basin was originally settled by Mormon and Lutheran homesteaders who built irrigation canals and storage reservoirs to augment the water supply. Existing canals divert water from Henry's Fork, the Fall River, the Teton River, and smaller tributaries, and irrigation water is stored in dams built on Henry's Lake, Henry's Fork, and the Fall River.

Agriculture is important in the Henry's Fork Basin; the primary crops are potatoes and grains. More than 235,000 acres of farmland are irrigated using surface or ground water sources in the basin. Recreation and tourism are also important sectors of the economy that depend heavily on the basin's water resources. Other sources of employment and income include government and the timber products industry. In recent decades, these different sectors were increasingly separated by conflict over water management issues. On one side were hydropower and irrigation interests and on the other, fisheries interests and recreation-based businesses that depended on in-stream flow for their continued existence.

In 1993, the Idaho Legislature passed the Henry's Fork Basin Plan as a framework for dealing with these controversial issues. As a result of the plan, new dams, diversions, and hydroprojects were prohibited on 195 miles of the Henry's Fork and its tributaries. Recommendations in the plan dealt with water quality, fish and wildlife protection, and irrigation water conservation.

At least 25 federal, state, and local agencies have management or regulatory jurisdiction in the Henry's Fork Basin, a situation that contributes to fragmented planning and decision making. Lack of agency coordination was hindering progress in addressing soil erosion, water delivery, and water quality problems, thereby worsening rather than solving problems arising from the sector divisions in the basin. To turn this situation around, citizens and agency representatives began, in 1993, to craft a new, nonadversarial approach to reconciling watershed issues in the Henry's Fork Basin.

Over the winter of 1993-94, the Henry's Fork Watershed Council was organized and chartered by the 1994 Idaho legislature. The charter identifies four major duties for the Council:

  • Cooperate in resource studies and planning that transcend jurisdictional boundaries, still respecting the mission, roles, and water and other rights of each entity.
  • Review and critique proposed watershed projects and Basin Plan recommendations, suggesting priorities for their implementation by appropriate agencies.
  • Identify and coordinate funding sources for research, planning, and implementation, and long-term monitoring programs, with financing derived from both public and private sectors.
  • Serve as an educational resource to the state legislature and the general public, communicating the council's progress through regular reports, media forums, and other presentations.

The council's mission statement was fashioned by consensus and reads as follows:

The Henry's Fork Watershed Council is a grassroots, community forum which uses a nonadversarial, consensus-based approach to problem solving and conflict resolution among citizens, scientists, and agencies with varied perspectives. The Council is taking the initiative to better appreciate the complex watershed relationships in the Henry's Fork Basin, to restore and enhance watershed resources where needed, and to maintain a sustainable watershed resource base for future generations. In addressing social, economic, and environmental concerns in the basin, Council members will respectfully cooperate and coordinate with one another and abide by federal, state, and local laws and regulations.

The Council is comprised of citizens, scientists, and agency representatives who reside, recreate, make a living, and/or have legal responsibilities in the basin, thus ensuring a collaborative approach to resource decision making. The number of participants in the council is not limited. Participating members are organized into three component groups:

  • Citizens' Group: Members of the public with commodity, conservation, and/or community development interests have an integral role in council affairs by being on equal footing with other participants. The citizens' group reviews agency proposals and plans for their relevance to local needs and whether all interests are treated equitably.
  • Technical Team: The team is composed of scientists and technicians from government, academia, and the private sector. The team's role is to serve as resource specialists for the council, coordinating and monitoring research projects, launching needed studies and reviewing any ongoing work in the basin. Duplication of research is minimized through technical team guidance; the results of research is to be integrated into council discussions.
  • Agency Roundtable: The roundtable has representatives of all local, state, and federal entities with rights or responsibilities in the basin, including the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. The agencies are working to align their policies and management to watershed resource concerns and needs. Discussions seek to ensure close coordination and problem solving among agencies, as well as to clarify legal mandates of each entity.

Two representative citizen organizations from the basin have been selected to co-facilitate the council meetings: the Fremont-Madison Irrigation District and the Henry's Fork Foundation. This Facilitation Team is chartered to attend to administrative and logistical needs of the council, coordinate its public information activities, and submit an annual report of its progress to the legislature. A Henry's Fork Watershed Fund has been established by the State of Idaho to help fund projects in the basin and to defray administrative expenses of the council.


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