Snake River Waterkeeper F.S. Buck Ryan tests a water sample from the South Fork of the Boise River below Pine Bridge north of Mountain Home.
F.S. Buck Ryan had been picking up litter from campsites and conducting water quality tests all morning along the South Fork of the Boise River. The tests were designed to provide a snapshot of the effect the small town of Pine had on the river's health; picking up discarded beer cans and fish bait tins was community service. His work finished, Ryan jumped headfirst into one of the perks of his job: Fly fishing. But unlike many visitors to this reach of the Sawtooth National Forest, Ryan wasn't fishing for sport.
"This data can be used for policy work and litigation," he said. "Fishing gives me citizen standing for lawsuits."
Ryan is the Snake River Waterkeeper—a member attorney of a national environmental advocacy organization that collects data on North American waterways and engages in legal and policy work to protect water quality. He spends about 100 days a year on the road crisscrossing Idaho and conducting tests on the Snake River and its tributaries. The data he collects on human health and aquatic life goes into the Waterkeeper Swim App, which gives recreationists a thumbs-up/thumbs-down assessment of whether it's safe to swim at points along the waterway. Version 3.0 is set for release in mid-August.
The Swim App has a variety of interfaces to help would-be swimmers find the safest stretch of water. Its Beach Map lets users home in on locations of interest, with popular swimming holes color-coded: green is safe, red is unsafe and gray indicates it has been two weeks or more since Ryan tested the site.
Other functions include a search bar and "Report Pollution" option, which allows users to submit photos and concerns to the Waterkeeper.
Approximately 20 percent of the more than 110 testing sites Ryan visits don't pass Environmental Protection Agency muster for human recreational use. According to the EPA, it's safe to swim where acidity is neutral, dissolved solids and nitrates are at low levels, and oxygen is at higher levels. Some sites, like a particularly fetid stretch of the Malheur River, are grossly outside those limits. There, total dissolved solids were measured at more than four times the EPA Human Health Criteria limit and nitrates were well over the limit, too.
Ingesting dissolved solids in excess of the EPA limits can make adults ill, but an overabundance of nitrates can sicken infants and cause shortness of breath, methaemoglobinaemia or "blue-baby syndrome" and even death.
"I think there's value in me going out and finding where it's safe to swim," Ryan said.
Boise Weekly joined Ryan on one of his testing excursions. The first site was at the Pine Bridge just south of Pine. His equipment included a Geiger counter-looking water quality testing computer and a pair of rods used for measuring water samples. The measurements read normal levels of dissolved oxygen, moderate nitrate levels and .0608 micrograms per liter of ammonia. On a scale of 1-10, Ryan said the health of this stretch of river was a 7, though he was surprised by its ammonia levels, saying, "That's actually higher than I was expecting. I would have thought it would have been less than .01 [micrograms per liter]."
Passing through Pine, he identified a slew of likely culprits: Approximately a mile upstream is the Elk Valley Ranch golf course. Ammonia and phosphorous are ingredients commonly found in golf course fertilizers. Other possible sources of pollution were greasy, algae-caked evaporation and drainage ponds near the river.
Ryan's tests at the second site took about 15 minutes to compile and, by then, he had assembled his fly fishing rod; tied on a mammoth fly he designed; and donned heavy, water-resistant boots. He jotted down the test results on a worksheet: The water temperature was 16.1 degrees Celsius—perfect for fish—and nitrate and ammonia levels were appropriately lower than they had been at the testing site below Pine.
In the Sawtooth National Forest, the South Fork of the Boise River gurgles through rocky canyons and between wooded hills. The stream was cool and fragrant, if low, for late July. Ryan cast his fly into a shaded pool and almost immediately hauled out a 5-inch redband trout—a species native to many Idaho rivers. Removing the hook from the fish's mouth, Ryan tossed it back into the pool. Redband trout and other native fish are indicators of stream health and, over the course of the afternoon, Ryan caught—and released—half a dozen native trout from the river.
In all, Pine has had a marginal impact on the river's water quality but, according to Ryan, the effect of small towns on the Snake River and its tributaries' water quality pales in comparison to larger cities, agriculture, dairies and industry—all of which can be found along the Snake River as it crosses southern Idaho and into Oregon.
As the water quality challenges facing Idaho become clearer, Ryan believes Idaho has a decision to make.
"Would you rather have the third-worst industry in the country or the best recreation?" he said.