New York, New York; canal that is

The Treasure Valley is contained within the arid environment of the Snake River Plain a geological fact that has made the damming of rivers, and the creation of canals for water transport and irrigation essential for cities and towns to survive and thrive here.  Without canals the steady growth of both population and economics that the southern portion of Idaho has seen for the last century would not have been possible. And, the farms that gave us the moniker “The Potato State”, along with the various other agricultural products that have contributed to Southwestern Idaho‘s economic viability would not have come into existence.

Idaho Farmland (Flicker: accessed 10/27/2013)

Although there is much legitimate controversy surrounding the damming of rivers, which I will go into later, the practice has made this desert bloom and helped in part to create many of the communities that grew up around the farms that the harnessing of water resources made possible. As such dams and canals present an interesting study of past planning in action and how a natural resource can be used to facilitate growth.

By the the mid 1860s all of the easily irrigated land near the rivers had already been put into use by farmers and the land that was left over was too arid to reliably grow crops on. Irrigation of the time was limited to ditches that were dug by loosely organized groups of farmers and were simply built.  The large canals that were needed to move water onto numerous benches and over long distances were far beyond the financial or engineering consideration of these groups.  Enter not planners, but big dreamers and some big investors who were thinking primarily of profit, but in the process of making money, shaped the Treasure Valley that we know today.

In 1882 a group of investors from New York looking to capitalize on both the mining and agricultural prospects in Idaho incorporated under the “Idaho Mining and Irrigation Company“.  The company engineer A.D. Foote drove the project forward through numerous stops, starts and difficulties both legal and technical.  Finally, on February 22, 1909 water flowed from the Diversion Dam on the Boise River along the New York canal to Deer Flat reservoir (later renamed Lake Lowell) creating a source of irrigation water for all of Canyon County.

Diversion Dam and the New York Canal (Wikipedia :accessed 10/27/2013)

Map of Lake Lowell location (Idaho F&G; accessed 10/28/2013)

Map of Lake Lowell location (Idaho F&G; accessed 10/28/2013)

This water allowed for land that was previously unsuitable for farming to be transformed into productive farms and cities like Nampa and Caldwell grew from tiny hamlets into decent size towns that continue to contribute to the economy of Idaho.

Damming of rivers has been a controversial topic for many decades with those in opposition siting the very real issues of habitat and ecosystem destruction as is seen in the case of the Sockeye salmon who saw a large decline in numbers due to the impassable nature of dams built along the Columbia and Snake rivers.  Other issues related to damming of rivers include changes in water temperature, erosion or deposition of sediment, loss of archaeological sites, and concerns over breaching of the dam.

However, in spite of these concerns, dams and the canals that provide irrigation water have had an enormous and economically positive impact on the western U.S.  Idaho in particular would look very different if projects like Diversion dam and the New York canal had not been built   Perhaps the takeaway from this is that judicious use of natural resources is an excellent planning tool and can be worked into regional plans in a way that will allow for strong economic growth but respect the fact that these resources are natural and nature, including humans depends on them to stay healthy.

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One thought on “New York, New York; canal that is

  1. Thanks Juli.

    In 1894 the Federal government passed the Cary Act (also called the Federal Desert Land Act); which modified the Homestead Act providing a means to continue the transfer of Federal lands to private land holders (and irrigations companies, for the first time) — by adding the condition that the land to be farmed must be surface irrigated. Idaho was one of the states that used this Act to a great extent (there are several still-extant Cary Act towns in Idaho). Prior to this, the Homestead Act had acquired a poor reputation in the American West leading to what some critics alledged was a wasteland of deserted and ruined farms.

    Unfortunately, this Federal statute didn’t resolve the question of water rights, or who had primacy in the use of the water that flowed through the canals. Even today (after years of adjudication), there are disputes between canal shareholders over which members should have first say over the use of the water. Local farmers argue that since they’re producing food, they should have a prior right over this water compared to the other shareholders who are using the water to flood-irrigate their lawns. Some farmers have argued that homeowners should be required to implement water conservation methods, and the Bureau of Reclamation should take this into account before the phased shutting down of specific canals in the Fall. I’m not sure the private-sector method provided for by these Federal policies will ever successfully resolve these issues, since their only means of accommodating the issue of water scarcity comes when the Federal government opts to start or stop the flows each year.

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