Voice Of The River: Henry's Fork Foundation

Farms and Fish:  A Fly-Fishing Mecca in the Seed Potato Capital of the World

The Henry’s Fork, and its famed Harriman State Park, are known around the globe as a mecca for anglers aiming to test their fly-fishing prowess. Decades of research shows that the crux of this world-class fishery, is the Island Park Dam and its 135,000-acre-foot reservoir.

Over the course of three decades, the Henry’s Fork Foundation (HFF) has developed programs to study, monitor, and conserve the Henry’s Fork Watershed. But after four years of drought ending in 2016, the worst since the Dust Bowl, it became clear that the organization would need to come up with new strategies to meet the pace and scale of unprecedented changes to water supply.

Fish need water, but without water rights or any management authority, HFF relies on collaboration, and being a trusted source of data to influence decision making in favor of fisheries and watershed health. Despite these limitations, HFF has had uncommon success; conserving tens of thousands of acre-feet of water over and above what would be available in a given year.

Two programs, both developed after the 2016 drought, particularly contribute to this water conservation. The first is a partnership between HFF, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, and Friends of the Teton River, called the Upper Snake Collaborative Farms and Fish Program. Farms and Fish is a voluntary program that works with local farmers to reduce irrigation demand through a variety of tools, including leasing land to defer irrigation, soil health initiatives, new markets, crop conversions, and installation of modeling and scheduling software on irrigation infrastructure.

The program is also looking to partner with breweries on a “Trout-Safe” beer, modeled after the “Salmon-Safe” program in the northwest. The Farms and Fish program is estimated to have conserved at least 1,200 acre-feet of water for the Henry’s Fork this year.

The other key program is called “precision management”. The Henry’s Fork Foundation has developed statistical models on available water supply, precipitation, snow-water equivalent and more, to predict water conditions and help water managers more precisely manage, and thereby conserve, water in the Henry’s Fork Watershed.

Daily communication of this data by HFF to water managers and other water users, as well as remote-controlled canal head gate technology, is estimated to have saved approximately 20,000 acre-feet of water in Island Park Reservoir in each of 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021. This was achieved in 2021 despite record low precipitation and water supply (6th and 4th lowest since 1978, respectively).

There is no doubt that efforts to keep more water in Island Park Reservoir results in better overall water quality in the system, more fish habitat, and increased winter flow. Years of research shows winter flow is the number one factor determining trout overwintering survival and number of catchable sized trout in the river downstream the following year. Unfortunately, this year, some of that water savings came at a cost to irrigators as system-wide water rights limitations kept diversion low.

A long-term weather outlook of hotter, drier, and more extreme conditions indicates that these innovative programs will be more critical than ever. Family farms and conservation can, and should, go hand-in-hand. Those who maintain the viability and health of our agricultural working lands can help improve surface and ground water resources for the benefit of people, communities, farms and, of course, fish.

To learn more about the Henry’s Fork Foundation, visit henrysfork.org.

Photos by: James Chandler Photography and Natalie Pontikes.