TREASURE VALLEY — On Monday at 3 a.m., the Nampa & Meridian Irrigation District will open the headgates of the Ridenbaugh Canal, diverting water from the Boise River above Barber Park.
The roiling water will wind along a 48-1/2 mile, three-day journey toward the canal’s mouth at Lake Lowell. If all goes well, irrigators will open the Ridenbaugh’s 80 smaller sublateral canals about a week later; water from the Boise River will spread out to lawns and crops over 69,000 acres of Ada and Canyon counties.
The importance of the Ridenbaugh, which has been operating since 1878, and other canals is obvious to anybody who has seen the Boise River Valley from the air. Amidst the brown desert, farms and subdivisions bloom a verdant green, fed by arterial irrigation systems more than 100 years old.
But in an increasingly urbanized Treasure Valley, most people don’t realize all the work that goes into bringing irrigation water into Canyon County, District Water Superintendent Greg Curtis said.
“When it was first constructed there was a big focus on irrigation. Everybody wanted to see the benefit spread across the valley. But as time has gone by, it’s been taken for granted,” Curtis explained. “A lot of people seem to think we’re just sitting around playing cards all winter.”
As with Canyon County’s 33 other irrigation districts, maintaining the Ridenbaugh Canal and its network of channels is a year-round, full-time job.
The irrigation district employees 28 people to monitor and maintain the network of canals, ditches, pumps and drains. From September or October, when the irrigation season ends, until April, when it starts again, workers are busy maintaining the system, which comprises more than 500 miles of waterways.
The biggest project this past winter was lining about 1,600 feet of the canal with concrete. Other ongoing projects include excavating sediment from ditches, torching accumulated brush, spraying and mowing weeds, plugging gopher holes and fixing water pumps.
Mark Zirschky, superintendent of the Pioneer Irrigation District, which covers 34,000 acres of mostly agricultural land, agreed that too many people take irrigation for granted.
Pioneer employs 12 workers to maintain the 35-mile long Phyllis Canal, which extends from the Boise River near Eagle Island to Greenleaf, as well as the smaller Highline and Lowline canals.
Encroachment is the biggest challenge facing irrigators, Zirschky and Curtis said.
As farmland has been converted into subdivisions, people moving into Canyon County see the canal systems as their own.
Although the irrigation districts hold easements, many property owners disregard that right-of-way, building fences, planting trees and placing sheds on the edges of canals. This hampers districts’ ability to bring in heavy machinery to dredge canals and clear out debris.
“An excavator with a 50-foot boom needs a fair amount of space,” Curtis explained.
Other people use the canal service roads as de facto recreational paths, a place to jog or walk dogs, without realizing that they are trespassing. Zirschky recalled an incident when a tractor that had been removing trees along a canal was vandalized; somebody spray painted “Leave nature alone.”
Another problem is when people use the waterways to dump garbage. Workers often have to remove old tires, yard clippings and household trash clogging the system.
“They’ll just back up to a canal in the middle of the night and kick it out the back of their truck,” Zirschky said.
Maintaining the canals and educating the public are a year-round project.
For now, though, the irrigation districts are focused on the start of the irrigation season this month, when the headgates will open and river water will rush into the network of canals and ditches.
At several points along the Ridenbaugh, a long-armed excavation tractor will be waiting on the banks — snagging branches, truck tires and other detritus from the flow. Meanwhile, workers will make sure various gates and pumps and measuring stations are operating correctly, before the flow passes into Lake Lowell some time Wednesday.
Curtis, with the Nampa & Meridian Irrigation District, said his crews will be working constantly to ensure water reaches farms and homes until the headgates close in the fall.
“That’s my favorite time of the year. You can look back and see that you’ve done your job. You get to take your breath, but you’re also sighing because you’ve got so much work to do before April,” he said.
Early history of Boise Valley Canals
Toward the end of the Boise Basin gold rush, a new breed of prospectors began staking claims. This time it wasn’t for gold mines but for water rights on the Boise River.
New York businessman John Burns arrived in Boise in 1882 and filed two claims to divert water from the Boise River for agriculture, mining and milling. The first canal, called the New York, would irrigate the eastern end of the Treasure Valley, while the other, called the Phyllis, would supply water for the western portion of the valley.
Bolstered by investors from the east, Burns formed the Idaho Mining and Irrigation Company. Burns and engineer A.D. Foote devised plans for the 75-mile long New York Canal with 5,000 miles of lateral ditches that could water 500,000 acres and turn the desert green.
With complications involving loss of investors, transfer of ownership and litigation, construction on the New York Canal began in fits and starts; it wouldn’t be revived until the ambitious federal Boise Project in 1902.
Meanwhile, in 1886, construction began on the Phyllis Canal, which flowed from the south bank of the Boise River below Eagle Island.
J.M. Phillips and James McGee incorporated the Phyllis Canal Company, named after McGee’s daughter, but soon ran out of money. They were bought out by the Idaho Mining and Irrigation Company, which also ran out of money.
The Denver-based W.C. Bradbury Company, which had been contracted to construct the canal, hired the legal services of future-U.S. Senator William Borah and filed a lien against the Idaho Mining and Irrigation Company.
In 1894, Bradbury bought both the New York and Phyllis Canals from an Ada County Sheriff’s sale.
Early farmers were discouraged by the management of the Phyllis Canal, arguing the water cost too much and delivery was unreliable. They organized to take over the irrigation system and by 1902, they had formed the Pioneer Irrigation District and bought the canal from Bradbury for $75,000.
The new irrigation district began enlarging the canal to bring more land under cultivation.
Construction on the Ridenbaugh Canal, which begins upstream from Barber Park on the south side of the Boise River, started in 1877 under William B. Morris. Seven miles of the canal were completed by the beginning of 1878. After Morris’ death that year, the canal was taken over by his wife and nephew, William H. Ridenbaugh.
Ridenbaugh hoped to extend the canal, but couldn’t acquire the capital. The canal and water rights were bought and sold several times, with each new investor extending the canal and adding new lateral ditches. By 1903, the canal extended 53 miles and had 271 miles of laterals. In 1906, the Nampa & Meridian Irrigation District bought the canal system; much like the Phyllis Canal, what began as a commercial venture fell into the hands of the farmers who used the water.
—Information from the Idaho State Historical Society