Monday, June 20, 2016

Boise River Water Flows into the New York Canal [otd 06/20]

On June 20, 1900, a rude diversion structure turned water from the Boise River into the New York Canal. The diversion, though feeble, culminated nearly twenty years of effort to bring irrigation water to the higher benches paralleling the river.
New York Canal construction. Boise State University.
Individuals and small cooperative groups began diverting irrigation water from the Boise River less than a year after the 1862 gold discoveries in the Boise Basin. With limited resources, ditch developers had to be clever and creative. Whenever possible, they led their channels along old creek beds and other natural depressions. According to Beal & Wells, "by the summer of 1864 all the river bottom land in Boise Valley was under irrigation."

As Idaho's population grew and funds became available, developers tackled larger, more ambitious irrigation projects. Around 1882, investors from New York began considering an extensive project along the river.  They had the notion that gold recovered from hydraulic placer sites along the Snake River might pay much of the construction cost. After that, collecting fees for water delivered to new farms on the Boise Bench would almost be “gravy.” (In the end, the placer gold mining notion went nowhere.)

Company Engineer Arthur D. Foote laid out plans for a system that could eventually irrigate an estimated half million acres. Foote then spent thousands of dollars to survey a seventy-five mile main canal and an intricate grid of lateral ditches. With an elaborate map drawn from these surveys, planners could start wooing investors.

Work began on the upper end of the canal in 1884. However, very little got done because a recession in the East dried up capital. The startup firm did just enough work – basically, a handful of men chipping away at the rocks – to maintain their water right through 1886. Competing efforts also lagged, and then collapsed.

Not until 1890 did serious work again proceed on the canal. A fresh infusion of capital resulted in about 14 miles of partially finished ditch before that money ran out in late 1892. Then the nationwide Panic of '93 caused yet more delay. When money again became available, in 1896-1898, several competing interests fought over who had rights to what. Some of these cases rose all the way to the Idaho Supreme Court.
Boise River Diversion Dam, 1909.
Canal in foreground. National Archives.
In 1899, various interests finally reached an accommodation in what became the new New York Canal Company. At last, in 1900, they got water through their ditch. However, the amount was a mere trickle compared to Foote's grand original concept. Insufficient flow and murky water rights created a snarl of problems.

Finally, water users asked Congress to authorize a larger project to meet their needs. In the end, the U. S. Reclamation Service (later the Bureau of Reclamation) took over the canal and made it part of a larger Payette-Boise Project (Idaho Statesman, September 1, 1905).

The Bureau of Reclamation made two key additions to the project: a permanent Diversion Dam, 7-8 miles upstream from downtown Boise, and a reservoir (now called Lake Lowell) near Nampa. Finally in 1909, substantial amounts of water began flowing through a greatly expanded New York Canal system.
                                                                                 
Reference: [B&W], [French]
“The Beginning of the New York Canal,” Reference Series No. 190, Idaho State Historical Society (March 1972).
Arthur Hart, “Idaho History: The New York Canal was an epic achievement,” The Idaho Statesman, March 14, 2010.

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