It took Lyle Hutchison three months to get a federal permit to shore up the bank of the Salmon River where it runs past his alfalfa field.
He knows several local people who have not received similar approval - at a time when a record snowpack is ready to melt and send huge volumes of water downriver.
They are just some of the eastern Idaho residents applying for the permits amid fears of flooding. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has received more than double the number of applications it had last year at this time.
Federal agencies want people to consult with them before taking heavy machinery to a stream bank. But the corps warns it cannot issue some permits until after flood season has passed.
Some applicants may be faced with following the law and risking flooding or joining the ranks of renegade landowners who alter streams on their own.
“It was getting real close to the time when I was going to start dumping rock in the river and say, ‘To hell with you and I’ll see you in court,”’ Hutchison said.
Last year, trees hung up on a sandbar and diverted the river 15 feet deep into his field, taking out an irrigation ditch.
He applied to the corps and the Idaho Department of Water Resources for permits to line 500 feet of stream bank with rocks and to build rock walls.
Because the Salmon River is considered crucial habitat for endangered salmon, the corps must write a biological assessment to show that any project will not harm habitat.
Corps project manager Ray Kagel has about 40 landowner applications on his desk. Some may not be processed for three or four months, he said.
“It’s not because we’re thumbtwiddling; it’s because there’s so many people in front of them,” he said.
Idaho Fish and Game Department biologist Bob Martin says he fears people may damage habitat if they change rivers without expert advice.
For example, Butte County landowners dumped fine-grained sediment along both the Big Lost River and Antelope Creek to divert floodwater. No permits were given for the work.
“When the big flood comes, it’s just going to blow those out and muddy the fish habitat,” said Martin.
The state can assess fines between $150 and $10,000. And under the federal Clean Water Act, someone could be fined up to $25,000 per day in criminal penalties and $10,000 in civil penalties.
With increased fear of flooding this year, the corps has pledged it will not stop unapproved stream work in emergency situations. It will come in after the fact, giving out permits and trying to get any serious damage cleaned up.
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