Iron Creek

Peer into the cold, clear water of Iron Creek on the upper reach of the Salmon River and you may see the silvery flash of young chinook salmon and steelhead as they prepare for their journey to the sea. This is part of Clyde Phillips’ legacy. Phillips started working on the Iron Creek Angus Ranch in 1970 and bought it in 2003. He and his wife, Jan, raised three sons and a daughter here.

Partners in the Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Program came to him with a proposition. Would he help restore flows to Iron Creek’s prime salmon habitat and reconnect it with the Salmon River? The proposal called for replacing irrigation ditches on the creek with a sprinkler system drawing from the Salmon River. Its waters restored, Iron Creek would run free year-round. Both the ranch and the creek would win, Phillips reasoned. “We wanted to see the creek reconnected to ease labor use on the ranch,” he said.

A dozen state and federal agencies and other organizations were involved. The Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, the Columbia Basin Water Transaction Program and the Natural Resources Conservation Service provided major funding. Staff from the Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Program helped secure permits, solicit bids, and smooth the rough patches.

The family committed 2,500 hours of labor to the project. Most weekends, the adult children came home to work, closing ditches and building fences to keep cattle off the fragile banks of Iron Creek. The improvements restored more than 7 cubic feet of water per second—approximately 4.6 million gallons of water daily—and opened 4.5 miles of fish habitat year-round. “Cold water is so important to fish,” says Tom Curet, a biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “It’s a resource that is severely lacking in Central Idaho.”

Clyde Phillips passed away in July 2009. But he got to see the project to its completion—and more. In 2009, Clyde and Jan Phillips received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Agriculture for Environmental Stewardship for their work on Iron Creek, one of the largest conservation and irrigation improvement projects completed in the Upper Salmon Basin to date.