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Silver Creek watershed

Managing water for people and nature

What began as a pilot project to make some small operational changes on an Idaho barley farm has since saved more than 300 million gallons of water (and counting) in the Wood River Valley. To put that into perspective, one million gallons of water is enough to fill a 10-foot-deep football field.

In 2009 the brewing company, MillerCoors, and The Nature Conservancy in Idaho began collaborating to help barley farmers move toward more sustainable agriculture.

They enlisted science to determine what measures would work best. A hydrological model developed between 2010 and 2012 by Maria Loinaz, PhD, showed lower agricultural water use leading to higher groundwater levels, cooler water (within a range) coinciding with more abundant trout populations, and effective restoration keeping water cold and abundant in Silver Creek.

Based on the findings of the model and working with farmers, the Conservancy generated a list of best management practices for barley farms and began implementing them with funding from MillerCoors and match from landowners.

The changes included water and energy conservation measures (lowering nozzles, changing nozzles, variable rate irrigation, installing smart panels), habitat improvements (fencing and planting creeks, restoring wetlands, increased setbacks, enhancing stream buffers) and monitoring.

“In two years we saved almost 300 million gallons of water, enhanced over two miles of tributary streams, and set up a community involvement and education component that will last for years to come,” says Dayna Gross, Silver Creek watershed manager. 

Over the past four years, the project has grown from sustainable agricultural practices on a 320-acre farm to the implementation of conservation practices on more than 6,000 acres with four farmers.

This year the Conservancy is also working with these partners to restore over 500 acres of wetlands, reconnect fish passage on a tributary creek, and continuing to save water and energy in farming operations. 

“We are hopeful that through more sustainable farming practices throughout the watershed, Silver Creek and the local community will be healthy long into the future,” says Gross.   

A ‘Showcase Barley Farm’ was developed to show the suite of best management practices entirely on one farm. An update provided by the farmer, states:

  • Water savings have increased to approximately 145 million gallons of water per season (from 120 million gallons in 2011).
  • The farmer continues to implement BMPs. In 2012, he shut off end guns on five additional pivots, saving 4 million gallons per pivot.
  • Energy costs were cut in half with the end guns shut off. With end guns, energy costs were approximately $50/acre and without end guns they are approximately $22-$25/acre.
  • Improvement in yield (this could be tied to many factors, we need longer to monitor).
  • More water is not always better. The right amount, at the right time, in the right place—that’s the goal. 

Since 1976, The Nature Conservancy has worked to protect more than 12,000 acres of working farms, uplands, wetlands and riparian areas in south central Idaho’s Silver Creek watershed, including the Conservancy’s 880 acre world-famous Silver Creek Preserve.

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