Irrigation manager leaves legacy of problem solving

Madison-Fremont Irrigation District Manager Dale Swensen finishes up the last few days on the job after a busy, successful career in water management. His retirement open house will be held from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 22 at the district office in St. Anthony. Joyce Edlefsen / for the Post Register

ST. ANTHONY Dale Swensen will retire at the end of the month after 40 years of guiding the Fremont-Madison Irrigation District out of pencil and ledger times into the modern water-using era and participating in many landmark events in water history. 

He has been training his successor, Aaron Dalling, to take over district duties.

When Swensen and his wife returned to St. Anthony in January 1978 from school at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, the plan was to get a job and raise a family. He had a fresh bachelor’s degree in animal science and a willingness to learn.

“I had no history with water,” Swensen said. “My dad was a dry farmer.”

So he learned as he went, he said. People say he learned well.

“Dale Swensen has provided leadership in the Henry’s Fork watershed for four decades by continually striving for the best solutions to state and local water issues,” said Brandon Hoffner, executive director of the Henry’s Fork Foundation.

As Swensen became its manager, the water district was dealing with the fallout from the Teton Dam failure. The district had filed a claim and a subsequent lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to get payment for the dam failure. “It did not pan out,” Swensen said. “It went to the 9th Circuit (Court of Appeals) and we lost.”

A change in the state’s method of water accounting turned out to be a major event, making a huge difference for water users. The change moved the industry away from handwritten records to computerized accounting. And it resulted in a five-day time lag for details on water availability.

Helping farmers to see the differences between the two methods and to get familiar with the lag time was a challenge, Swensen said. It led to an uncertainty that was difficult.

The Fremont-Madison Irrigation District is unique because it focuses mostly on storage water delivery and the operation and maintenance of Island Park and Grassy Lake, as well as the Cross Cut Canal. The district owns no equipment other than a hand hydraulic pump Swensen used to open valves at Grassy Lake Dam to contain or release water. Canal companies, rather the district, own the water rights.

“We deal with delivering storage water to the (canal) headgates,” he said, and work with watermasters to provide information the canal users need.

“The biggest thing that changed the complexion (of water use) was the Swan Falls/Snake River water adjudication process,” Swensen said. That process, which validates water rights, is all but done.

While he can’t recall more than pushing and shoving about water issues in the district, it was not free of contention. Work to create the Henry’s Fork Basin Water Plan involved many noisy public hearings pitting environmentalists against irrigators as the Idaho Resources Board worked to protect reaches of the Henry’s Fork.

That issue, coupled with others, eventually prompted a move that shocked observers at the time.

Among the issues:

• The Marysville Hydroelectric Project blew out in one section, sending silt downstream in the Fall River and into the Henry’s Fork.

• The Henry’s Fork Foundation was created as “the voice of the river,” which was a perceived threat to the water users.

• A drawdown of Island Park Reservoir in 1992 during a severe drought led to silting of the Henry’s Fork through famed fishing stretches in Harriman State Park.

“It was a controversial, highly charged atmosphere,” Swensen said.

“One day Jan Brown came to my office to talk,” Swensen said. Brown was the director of the Henry’s Fork Foundation at the time. That discussion led to a meeting where most of the state and federal water agencies and environmental groups met to try to diffuse the situation.

It led to the formation of the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council.

The water district and the foundation volunteered to serve as co-facilitators of the council, which was quickly viewed as a success story in collaboration and civil discussion.

“There was a transformation in how we interacted,” Swensen said. “We’ve been a lot more productive, though we still disagree. It’s led to more meetings to explain situations. It’s made my job easier because there is less controversy and harder because there’s more involvement in issues,” he said.

The watershed council has been a forum for discussing a plethora of issues and concerns, from groundwater recharge to more water studies.

“It’s been a great career,” Swensen said, and he will particularly miss his association with water users inside and outside of the district,” he said.

He will be missed.

“Working through collaborative process such as the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council and Henry’s Fork Drought Management Planning Committee, Dale is willing to look at situations from multiple angles while always keeping his constituency’s concerns at the forefront of the discussion,” Hoffner said.

“A lot of good has come about for agriculture, and the Henry’s Fork fishery, because of Dale’s leadership and demeanor.”