Part 2: History – Boise River Farmers Create Flood Control District #10

Ivan Cane, Flood 10 Commissioner, photo by Erv Ballou

By Steve Stuebner

Back in the late 1960s, Boise River farmers were focused on keeping the river channel clear of trees, debris, and other obstructions so they could access river water for irrigation. They also worried about how spring flooding affected their private property and croplands.

So it makes sense that farmers would be the ones to champion the formation of a flood control district on the Boise River in 1970. “No one else had as strong of an interest in managing the Boise River channel as the farmers back in those days,” says Bill Clayton, Chairman of Flood 10 since 1989.

Historical documents in the archives of the Idaho Department of Water Resources show that the original petition to form Flood Control District #10 was brought by Albert Wolfkiel, a farmer and member of the Boise Soil Conservation District. Ivan Cane, a farmer and chairman of the conservation district testified in favor of forming the flood control district, indicating that the Boise SCD had been discussing the matter for some time.

A hearing notice related to the formation of Flood 10 indicated the purpose of forming the district as follows: “The object for the organization of the Flood Control District is to provide means insofar as practicable and economically feasible to control floods of the Boise River in Ada and Canyon counties and for the object and purpose investigation of all reasonable and proper methods for the control of the said stream. That all of the said things to be done in the way of controlling the high waters of said Boise River will be conducive to the public health and welfare and to reduce damage to property and endangering lives during such high water seasons and that such proposed methods or systems of flood control are property and advantageous methods of accomplishing such relief.”

It’s notable that historically, most people did not want to build homes or businesses close to the river because it was prone to flooding and causing damage on a regular basis prior to the completion of Anderson Ranch Dam in 1950 and Lucky Peak Dam in 1955.

Floods were massive with major impacts. A freak winter storm with warm rain on top of snow created a flood of 44,000 CFS on the Boise River in December 1964, for example. The April 1943 flood of 25,040 CFS caused so much damage that it inspired the discussion to build Lucky Peak Dam. Damages from the 1943 flood totaled $997,350, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. The dam was approved by Congress in 1949; the cost was $19 million (1955 dollars).

In 1959, a fall heavy rainstorm dumped 2.23 inches of water on top of recently burned lands on Shaw Mountain, causing mudflows to wash into the city of Boise from Cottonwood Creek, Maynard Gulch, and other streams that flowed out of the eastern foothills. Photos of bulldozers pushing mud out of the streets of Boise made a lasting impression. Residents had to shovel 10-inch-deep mud off sidewalks and driveways.

A video documentary about that whole ordeal, available on YouTube, was titled, “When the Pot Boiled Over.”

“Never in the community’s history had there been a flood such as the big mud bath of 1959,” the narrator said in the video. “Thousands of tons of soil and debris were spread over the city of Boise and surrounding country.”

Peak flows of 19,000+ CFS occurred multiple times in the decades prior to the construction of Anderson Ranch and Lucky Peak dams. During the big flood of 1983, 24,290 CFS came roaring down the Boise River as measured at Diversion Dam. After the flows were regulated, the 1983 flood sent 9,840 CFS down the Boise River corridor, flooding out thousands of acres of land and damaging private and public property.

The primary purpose of Anderson Ranch, built by the Bureau of Reclamation, was to provide more irrigation storage water for farmers, along with some flood-control benefits and recreation benefits. Lucky Peak was built by the Corps of Engineers primarily for flood-control purposes in addition to recreation, hydropower, and irrigation.

(Arrowrock Dam, by the way, was one of the first dams built in the western United States by the Bureau of Reclamation from 1911-1915. It was built primarily as a water-storage project for irrigation. It was the largest concrete-arch dam built in the world at the time, according to Wikipedia.)

Even after the three dams and reservoirs were completed, Boise River farmers complained that the Boise River channel had less capacity to fulfill their full water rights because of gravel, trees, or debris blocking their diversions.

“It’s getting to the point where there’s no channel anymore,” lamented Jess Urrusuno, a district board member. “I feel we need a freer hand as to where we can repair. We should be given some of the Boise River as a working stream.”

Back in the day, concrete riprap and old car bodies were frequently used to prevent bank erosion.

Most people testified in support of forming Flood 10 in two different hearings, one in May 1970 and one in July 1970. Most people who testified were farmers who lived next to the river. A few others testified, including the Idaho Fish and Game Department, the Boise River Watermaster, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Idaho Wildlife Federation.

Farmer Ivan Cane, responding to concerns from IDFG that the farmers wanted to turn the river into a canal, said, “We’re not going to do that. We didn’t do that before, and we’re not going to do that now.” But Flood 10 board members wanted a freer hand to manage trees, gravel, and debris in the river, he said.

June Walters, who lived close to the Boise River, testified that “this matter of keeping things natural for nature lovers, etc., you’ll find the original nature lovers were farmers. Otherwise, they wouldn’t still be farming. They love the soil. They love the land and all that grows there, including the animals and the birds…. But the (farmers), they don’t want their homes washed away, nor their making of a living.”

The petition to form Flood 10 was approved by then-IDWR Director Keith Higginson. The first three commissioners to run Flood 10 were all farmers:

  • L.C. Mace, Eagle
  • Ivan Cane, Meridian
  • Harry Burger, Caldwell

A bond of $5,000 was approved for Flood 10 as its initial budget. A map of the taxing district was provided, a relatively narrow strip of land on either side of the Boise River from the Plantation Island area in Boise to Caldwell. The original commissioners were appointed by Higginson on Nov. 25, 1970.

The Idaho Legislature followed with the creation of the flood control district legislation months later in 1971, leading to other flood control districts being formed in Idaho. Other districts that formed included the Snake River Flood Control

Old car bodies known affectionately as "Detriot Rip Rap" can still be found along
the banks of the Boise River below Eagle.

District No. 1, Little Wood Flood Control District No. 2, and Big Wood Flood Control District No. 9.

The Idaho Legislature also passed a new statute in 1971 related to stream-alteration activities in the state. Called the Idaho Stream Channel Protection Act, the new legislation brought a new set of rules, enforced by IDWR staff, that guided a permitting process for stream-alteration activities.

Erv Ballou ran the stream-protection
permitting program for the Idaho
Department of Water Resources for over 30 years.

 Erv Ballou, Assistant Manager of Flood 10, oversaw the IDWR stream channel permitting process from the very beginning. He recalls that the Idaho Legislature was motivated to come up with a state-permitting process in light of the federal Clean Water Act legislation.

“The state didn’t want the feds telling us how to run our programs,” Ballou recalls. “The state legislation allowed us to create our own program, but there would be some basic rules of operation developed by IDWR, and the flood districts would have to follow those rules.”

Prior to that time, farmers or the Corps of Engineers would go out in the Boise River to clear gravel, trees, or debris with bulldozers, causing quite a bit of damage to the river channel, he said.

Under the Corps program, “they called it clearing and snagging,” he said. “A heavy equipment operator would go out there in the river and clear out the gravel bars and trees, and they kind of turned it into a biological desert.”

The original board members of Flood 10 didn’t want to follow the new stream-alteration rules, Ballou remembers, chuckling at the thought of dealing with the hard-nosed farmers. “The old guys wouldn’t listen. But they were forced to change by the permitting process. They couldn’t go into the river and bulldoze everything they wanted to. They didn’t like it, but they would have to change.”

A big flood in 1943 exceeding 20,000 cfs submerged the whole Plantation Island area in Boise.

Ballou remembers that Cane would drive his truck over to construction sites and load up chunks of concrete with rebar sticking out the sides, so they could use the concrete chunks to armor the banks of the Boise River. But he required Cane to saw off the rebar so it would not injure anyone floating the river. In earlier times, farmers used old car bodies – described as “Detroit riprap” – to shore up river banks.

“After the floods came, the high water would sometimes float that stuff out into the middle of the river,” Ballou said. “It wasn’t a long-term fix.”

Next: Part 3: Development Pressure Narrows the Boise River Channel


For more information about Flood Control District 10, contact Mike Dimmick, District Manager

For feedback on the stories, contact Steve Stuebner