Boise pushes on its river, and the river shoves back

  • Placid Once More: Canoeing on the Boise River

    Steve Bly
  • Tubing down the river is now a Boise tradition

    Steve Bly

The "New West" has settled along the banks of the Boise River. An urge to live and work near rushing water has transformed a braided, meandering waterway, once cloaked in nothing more than cottonwoods and rural attitudes, into an urban amenity flanked by office parks, pubs and a forest of pricey homes. Think of riverfront patios trimmed in tulips, morning lattés served in dappled light, a short, shaded walk to work.

Think, too, of a river reduced, a river leveed, channeled and drained. Think of the forgetfulness that comes with long periods of little rain. Think, then, of this year's high water.

In January, the river began to rumble through downtown Boise with uncharacteristic power, hissing through low-lying stands of trees, pushing high and hard against city bridges, and breaking apart walkways within sight of the state capitol. Water managers, desperate to clear space in upstream reservoirs before this year's record runoff overwhelmed them, released a controlled flood through downtown Boise. For three months, high water left the city teetering at the brink of urban flooding. As the river rose, so too did criticism of Boise's floodplain development.

Soon the threat of flooding was all over the news. The Idaho Statesman ran a five-part series; Susan Stacy, former director of Boise's planning department, gave lectures on the history of flood control along the river. The conservation group Idaho Rivers United declared the Boise an endangered waterway, and the group's water-policy director, Marti Bridges, warned of the consequences of further floodplain encroachment. Throughout town, terms like "hydrology" and "riparian habitat" seeped into conversations. On the evening news, owners of riverfront homes entered the dialogue nervously, with questions about flood insurance and sandbags.

A few decades earlier, Boise and its river were very different places. The city, not yet discovered by the likes of Micron or Hewlett-Packard, held a population half its current 163,000. As the river tumbled clear and cold into the valley from trout streams high in the Sawtooth Mountains, the city greeted it with indifference. Summer irrigation demands often dropped the river's flow to a fetid trickle as it made its way through downtown Boise. (Sugar beets, beans, alfalfa, wheat, corn and potatoes still hold more cachet than urban aesthetics or wildlife.)

The Boise was a working river, a ragged ribbon of disorder running through a tidy town - but it was also a waterway with twists, turns and room for high water.

In the '70s, a burgeoning sense of civic pride and environmental consciousness changed all that. A plan for a system of public trails along the river took hold. The Greenbelt, as it was called, met with much local enthusiasm as the city purchased land and constructed paths. Meat rendering plants disappeared, gravel pits became ponds, Boy Scouts planted trees, naturalists catalogued habitat and volunteers built nests for waterfowl.

The park then ran uninterrupted through the heart of the city, a riparian corridor where families could fish near home and where bald eagles perched within sight of office towers. It drew national praise.

But public works create private opportunity. The Wall Street Journal declared the river cleanup "a major spur to economic development," and soon developers were looking at the river as more than open space. With the approval of new national flood-insurance policies and the city's desire to promote growth downtown, engineers were allowed to build levees and carve overflow channels. They squeezed the river into tighter quarters, replacing floodplain with real estate and ecological concerns with those of economics. They attempted to turn a complex system into a decorative backdrop to the good life.

Just such a backdrop won't be hard to imagine by mid-July, when an armada of inner-tubers will likely fill the Boise River every day - a summer tradition - floating six miles of quiet water from Barber Park to Ann Morrison Park. In mid-March, though, high water had the city warning people away. Kayakers were told not to surf a large, standing wave that had appeared on the west side of town. On May 18, the river pushed through an earthen dam at Logger's Creek and tore up 100 feet of Greenbelt trail.

"We're going to see a lot more of this before we're done," warned a Boise Parks and Recreation Department manager. Erosion was beginning to show along the entire 14-mile length of Greenbelt riverbank.

Many times in the past, the Boise River had forcefully reclaimed its floodplain. The very land its namesake town now occupies was carved out by water that wandered the Boise Valley eons ago. Once free of the mountains, flooding occurred along its 64-mile length, from the foothills, through towns and farmland, to its junction with the Snake River, near Parma. Today, in the Boise area alone, a 100-year flood (with a two-in-three chance of occurring over the next 100 years) would affect an estimated 5,000-to-10,000 people living adjacent to the river. A 500-year flood would spill far from the river's edge, engulfing much of downtown Boise and an inestimable number of people. In 1863, observers described a flood that spread from "bluff to bluff," covering the entire width of the valley and carrying a flow estimated at 100,000 cubic feet per second. This spring's high water topped out at a modest 7,000 cfs.

What was unique about this year's flood was not its high flow but its duration - three full months of threatening water - time enough to contemplate in detail riverfront development, the flaws in logic, the misguided designs. One only had to turn to recent flooding in the Central Valley of California or downtown Reno to question engineered solutions to the natural pulsing of rivers. Perhaps the Egyptians in The Book of the Dead had it right when they commanded: "Thou shalt not hinder the waters of inundation."

Then in early May, the Boise's high water began to fall; low rainfall and cool days had lessened the threat of flooding. As water managers began to weigh the needs of irrigators, the flow from reservoirs was cut back. The tide had turned. The long-submerged trunks of trees began to dry and great blue herons again found shallow water to fish.

In arid Boise, where 11 inches of rain falls in a normal year, floods can be useful tools for studying the habits of forgetfulness: As they recede, so too can memories of them. In town, talk shifted quickly from sandbags to suntans, and soon the city was considering another riverfront development, a project called Harris Ranch, which would place 3,500 homes along the last open stretch of urban river.

Yet at the first hearing, Harris Ranch met with almost universal public opposition. People spoke of wildlife corridors, land trusts and tighter controls on growth. Perhaps, for the Boise River, the tide has turned.

Guy Hand is a California-based free-lance writer/photographer who grew up in Boise and spent this spring wandering the banks of his hometown river.

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