Bordering the Snake River in the Hagerman Valley of southern Idaho, Thousand Springs Preserve consists of 400 acres of bottomlands and spring creeks edged by wondrous basalt cliffs and cascading waters.
In 1986 the Nature Conservancy purchased the Minnie Miller farm and its breathtaking Minnie Miller falls, the last untapped canyon wall springs, and four spring creeks.
The purchase tested the resolve of Idaho’s Nature Conservancy. "Because it was a court-ordered sale, the Conservancy had only 30 days to do the land purchase," State Director Guy Bonnivier recalls. "Before I could put our money on the line for the property, I had to be convinced that we could get minimum stream flow legislation passed to protect Minnie Miller Falls, and the preserve’s spring creeks as well."
Working with attorneys Jeff Fereday and Laurel Mayer, they organized state-mandated public hearings. The State Dept of Parks and Recreation agreed to hold the minimum stream flow right if the Conservancy -- working through the Idaho Department of Water Resources -- could secure it. Idaho State Senator Laird Noh assisted with legislation. Their efforts paid off, and minimum stream flows were secured for Minnie Miller Falls, as well as the spring creeks.
The first goal of TNC is to protect the springs. But how do you keep the water clean if you just own the land from the edge of the cliff down where the springs come out and have no control of everybody who lives and farms up above.
As former Preserve manager Mike O’Brien pointed out, " they’re the people responsible for the springs being clean in the first place. And we thought, maybe the only way we could think of is to throw open the gates and encourage everybody to come down here and see the springs. No arm twisting, no saying, ‘you must keep that water clean somehow.’ Let them make their own connections. They’ll see these beautiful springs, they can figure it out for themselves…
We think it’s a really important thing for people to see these springs, you see em, you love em, and you can’t help but think when you go home,’gee, maybe I should fix my septic tank.’"
"After we’d been here a couple years, North Side Canal Company came to us and said, ‘we’ve noticed that one of our return water flows is sometimes muddy and it flows right into the flume, through the power plant and right into these springs and we’d like to clean it up.’ After we picked ourselves up off the floor, we said,’ sure, how can we help?’ And they said, ‘we need some land to do it on.’ We said, ‘we’re in the land business.’
"So we bought a farm that was for sale right up here, and North Side Canal Company put in a wetland… and it cleans up the water before it comes down into the Snake River. And its been doing a wonderful job and North Side Canal Company has been putting wetlands and settling basins on 29 of their 32 return water flows." The canal company received help from the University of Idaho and many volunteers.
" It’s really an astounding story and no one knows about it. These guys are great."
"We didn’t need to buy the farm, but it was the only way we could see to protect the water" notes State Director Bonnivier; "in purchasing that property and then obtaining and acquiring minimum stream flow rights in cooperation with the Dept of Water Resources and the Parks Department, we got the project done, and that nearly 1000 cfs of spring water is benefiting the entire Snake River."
"You know, if you come here," says Mike O’Brien, "you think , there’s going to be conservationists here and farmers here, fish farmers, and they’re going to be at each others throats. It isn’t like that. It isn’t like that at all. This place is the best example I can think of where things are as they ought to be. All the folks around here are cooperating, and in ten years you probably won’t recognize the middle Snake River because of all these unsung heroes around here…
"You just won’t believe the improvements that are going to come -- not because people’s arms are being twisted – but because they want to do it. And that makes this place special."
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