Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Irrigation Water Flows into East Idaho's Great Feeder Canal [otd 06/22]

On June 22, 1895, water was diverted from the Snake River into the Great Feeder Canal. The Diversion Dam, located about 20 miles northeast of Idaho Falls, supplied water to one of the most ambitious of the early irrigation projects in Idaho. The main Canal and the many smaller canals it feeds now make up one of the largest irrigation systems in the American West.
Headgates, Great Feeder Canal.

As in the Boise and Payette river valleys, pioneers along the upper Snake River began digging small irrigation ditches almost as soon as they settled there. Thus, the first "active irrigation farming" began in 1868, just three years after Matt Taylor built his toll bridge [blog, December 10]. The farm was located about 15 miles north of the spot called, successively, Taylor's Bridge, Eagle Rock, and (today) Idaho Falls.

Still, the region remained mostly ranch country until the railroad arrived in 1879, when homesteads blossomed. To this point, settlers had mostly tackled side streams of the Snake River itself, or creeks flowing into it. Finally, in 1880, ambitious irrigation companies filed two major water rights. They edged small weirs into the Snake’s current to divert water into multi-user canal systems.

Within a decade a network of canals laced the plains along both forks of the Snake. However, water supplies for these systems depended largely upon the vagaries of the river. It was sometimes a case of too little or too much. Often, small diversion dams washed out during spring high water and had to be rebuilt every season. Conversely, major changes in the river course sometimes left entire canal systems without a source.

One such twist created what locals called the "Dry Bed." The Bed had once been an important river channel but now lay dry most of the year. Thus, in 1895, a score of different canal companies cooperatively formed the Great Feeder Canal Company. Construction began immediately on a substantial diversion dam and ditch segment. They located the dam far enough upriver so the flow would fill the old channel and feed water to numerous component canal systems.

Reported with a full-page spread in the Idaho Falls Times (June 27, 1895), the opening was a well-attended, gala event. There were songs, a prayer, a poetry recital, and – of course – speeches by various dignitaries.

All did not go quite as planned, however. As the third or fourth major speaker began, “Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to – ”
“Boom!!!” the Times reporter wrote. The miner handling the dynamite had jumped the gun on breaching the holding wall, “and with a mighty roar in rushed the foaming stream and 2,000 second feet of water had passed through the headgate before the speaker could utter another word.”
Great Feeder Canal.

As with all such systems, their work had only begun. Continual upkeep and periodic upgrades – supplemental dams, replacement headgates, and more – were and still are required to maintain a good flow to water users. Today, besides its traditional uses, real estate ads tout residential properties that are near or "back up to" the Great Feeder Canal. (Which does not mean a property has any water rights associated with the Canal, but it sounds impressive.)

The Great Feeder, or Dry Bed as it is still identified on many maps, is also host to an odd, but useful annual event. A special fishing season opens on April 1 when the channel is emptied for routine maintenance. Individuals with valid fishing licenses can each "harvest" a half-dozen fish – which would die anyway – using any means short of chemicals, electric shock, or explosives.
                                                                                 
References: [B&W], [Hawley]
Barzilla W. Clark, Bonneville County in the Making, self-published, Idaho Falls, Idaho (1941).
Mary Jane Fritzen, Idaho Falls, City of Destiny, Bonneville County Historical Society (1991).
John L. Powell (ed.), “Great Feeder Canal Company Records, 1896-1983,” Manuscript MSSI 31, Brigham Young University-Idaho Special Collections, Rexburg, Idaho (2002).
Steven Pope, “Dry Bed Canal Fishing Begins,” KIDK.com (April 1, 2010).

No comments:

Post a Comment