On the unseasonably warm evening of Oct. 5, 2004, several homeowners from select Ada County neighborhood associations met with representatives of some of the area's most influential developers. From that gathering came a blueprint that may eventually alter the geography, if not the very essence, of the Treasure Valley.
Held in the events center of the gated community Carmel Village, the meeting was not announced to the public or the press—either before it was held or after—and, in fact, extraordinary efforts were taken by the organizers to disguise its true purpose.
What agenda would require such a level of secrecy?
In answer, to those who use Ada County's extensive canal system for any reason—jogging, exercising the family dog, biking or even irrigating the lawn—enjoy it while it lasts. If everything goes as this group plans, the canals will soon be a thing of the past. By 2010, if the plans set in motion in that Carmel Village events center almost four years ago continue on unchallenged, those verdant waterways to which many Idahoans have grown accustomed—the Ridenbaugh, the Settlers, the New York, the Farmers Cooperative—will have become one of three things: 1) tastefully landscaped recreation areas for high-end subdivision residents, 2) fenced-in wildlife corridors to accommodate the overflow of deer and elk that have been displaced from the winter forage havens like Harris Ranch, and 3) the option most likely for western Ada County: winding rows of affordable housing, probably in the form of "skinny houses," placed side by side from the eastern edges of Meridian and Eagle all the way to Nampa, Star and beyond.
- Leila Ramella
- The New York Canal, in a rendering of the future project provided by MADC.
And all it will take to set the transformation into motion is a few million tons of road-mix gravel and construction rubble—enough to in-fill Ada County's hundreds of miles of canals.
The '49er Connection
"Had gold never been discovered in what is called "the Boise Basin," there stands a decent possibility that the irrigation conduits criss-crossing the Boise River Valley, from the Black Escarpments above State Highway 21 to the orchards, the hops farms, and the sugar beet fields of Canyon County would have never been excavated."
Natives of this region, and even longtime residents who came here before or during the modest, mid-70s influx—often referred to as the "Orange County Bloom"—already know the traditional benefits of the regional irrigation system. Yet to fully appreciate the gravity of what is planned, a deeper understanding of the canals' past is required. For this, we need look no further than Alfonse Hendrick's fascinating tome, The History of the Ditches: How Canals Came to Be In Idaho, What They Do, and Some of the Things You Might See Float By if You Stand Next To One Long Enough.
"The story must begin at John Sutter's mill in California's Sierra Nevada. In 1848, gold was discovered there, setting off a massive rush of footloose men seeking to make a quick fortune with nothing more than a shallow pan and a pair of wading boots. Unhappily, it is estimated that 19 out of every 20 of these '49ers, as they came to be called, never found much more than wet feet and sore backs."
But their failure in the hills and streams of California did not stop a great many of them from pursuing their dreams of riches. Hundreds of prospectors spread out across the western territories, scanning the land for the glint of gold. In the late summer of 1862, a German-Irish immigrant (known to his traveling companions only as "O'Fritz") found that glint in the headwaters of the Boise River. Within a year's time, there were approximately 20,000 would-be gold barons, scratching through the rocks and riparian scrub around what would come to be Idaho City.
The matter of feeding this horde of miners—by and large, displaced '49ers—led to the Boise Valley's consideration for agriculture. Without the capacity to grow crops and raise stock closer to the gold fields, supplies were freighted in from as far away as the Willamette Valley and Salt Lake City. And what an arduous chore that must have been, navigating mule-drawn wagons full of pigs and turnips over what were barely more than antelope tracks. Yet, ironically, there was nothing whatsoever wrong with the soil in this sagebrush-swathed valley adjacent to the mining activities—if only there were water.
A few enterprising farmers saw the opportunity and with the blessing of the 1862 Homestead Act, snatched up arable land adjoining the Boise River. The first canals were little more than rudimentary gouges in the topsoil, hand carved with shovels and hoes. The first diversionary dams were rock weirs and felled cottonwood trees, positioned in such a way that water would back up and flow in the desired directions. (One early settler was known to make his wife, a portly woman with immensely strong arms, stand in the frigid stream and push water into his crude sluice with the stiff hide of a long-dead deer. It is recorded [in the defunct Ee-Da-How Monthly] that she had a "God-given talent for diverting water," but there is no record as to how long she put up with this menial indignity.)
The Desert Land Act of 1877 made it simple for westbound pioneers to acquire land in the rest of the valley, but by that time, the easily irrigated sections were all taken. Latecomers were left with trying to coax crops from the arid lands over and beyond the benches to the south of the Boise River.
Then in 1882, one John H. Burns, a native of New York, filed two claims on Boise River water. Taken together, these claims were for 300,000 inches. (This is far more than the Boise carried in its best seasons, but at the time, nobody was seriously counting.) After a long string of setbacks, disappointments and copious amounts of capital invested by Eastern speculators, one of Burns' original claims eventually became the New York Canal on the upriver end of the valley. The other became the Phyllis Canal, still serving the western end.
By 1900, there were over 19,000 people in the Treasure Valley, living alongside 568 miles of canals, irrigating 96,652 acres of farm-land—and with the subsequent construction of dams on the Boise River, the numbers kept growing. From the alfalfa fields of Eagle, Meridian and Kuna to the potato sheds of Caldwell, Middleton and beyond, the valley floor turned from sagebrush gray to pasture green. Orchards flourished, vineyards, dairy farms, broad swatches of corn, onions, beets, mint, wheat—the valley came alive, not only with the crops and herds, but with the auxiliary businesses it took to sustain such a level of agriculture.
Six generations of Idahoans have learned to dog paddle in the old swimming holes provided by bends in the canals. Water fowl by the hundreds of thousands have nested on the banks and thrived in the languorous waters. Muskrats, foxes and raccoons make their homes in the drainage ditches that carry runoff back to the Boise River. Yet it is precisely this heritage that some want erased from the map of Ada County.
Wheels in Motion
"We knew it was vital that we not let the cat out of the bag too early, so we all agreed to dress up like we were going to square dance lessons. That was my idea. It sounds silly now, but at the time, I figured all those bouncy, frilly skirts and bolo ties would keep curious people from butting in."
That first clandestine meeting in the Carmel Village community center led to many others, and over the following two years, the momentum grew exponentially. The original participants (numbering no more than 20, as far as the authors have been able to discern) quietly convinced their neighbors on the desirability of filling in the canals, and those neighbors convinced other neighbors. The energy moved from swank subdivision to swank subdivision—from Mulholland Manors to Ventura Hills to Little Barstow—all the time gathering force.
Petitions were circulated discreetly, lest "natives" found out about it before the time was right. The people organizing this effort realized how important the canals are to the "natties," (the name native-born Idahoans are now called in some circles) if only for sentimental and nostalgic reasons, and they didn't want to generate a reaction by exposing their intentions before it was too late to do anything about it. Hence, the case was made under the radar, so to speak, taking place largely among the ubiquitous out-of-towners networks that serve the same function for recent transplants that international clubs do for foreign-born Micron employees. One organizer (who insisted on remaining anonymous) recounts that were it not for the Wednesday night gatherings of the Bay Area Goldeneers Club, she would have never filled out her petitions.
The development side to the equation threw considerable resources into the preparations. Their role was to put steady pressure on those officials who would ultimately either give approval to the endeavor or deny it. The group's strategy was to include key figures within all of the local planning and zoning entities, the various city councils, the county administration and a mayor or two. They didn't need every elected official in their corner, but they obviously needed enough political and bureaucratic clout to send any potential opposition into the tangled wilderness of appeals courts, counter-suits and the dreaded "open hearings."
The toughest nut they had to crack was the Idaho Legislature, since that body is so packed with men and women involved in agriculture and ag-related enterprises. But with a few dozen strategically placed campaign contributions (not to mention a 2006 mid-summer "fact-finding" mission to Lake Tahoe), they gradually became confident the lawmakers, as a whole, would do little to interfere with their plans and might actually come up with considerable state funding to help finance it.
(It must be said that not every development company involved in this project is headquartered in California. One is out of Arizona, another from Nevada, and yet another from Texas. While it's true the remaining five are California-based, we must not jump to the assumption that this scheme is strictly California-inspired.)
The kingpins of this endeavor realized that, at some point, they would have to make their plans more broadly known. Of course, they would need a name, under the banner of which they might advertise their cause, negotiate with the federal agencies involved in irrigation, prepare a PR campaign to sway public opinion, and raise the needed capital that would smooth the way for ultimate government funding. Dale Vernon, speaking for the Bakersfield-based Heart-O-The-Artichoke Development Group, pushed for a title that would declare their intentions in a forthright manner. His suggestion was the Alliance for Filling In the Ditches (AFFID).
But the final nod went to the contribution of a young stay-at-home mom, Tara Buntrock, who argued they needed a name that would appeal to the values of traditional Treasure Valley families. In June 2005, they agreed on Mothers Against Drowning Children, or MADC. (When asked how she could have such a finely tuned ear for traditional Treasure Valley families, as she had moved from San Diego to Eagle a mere 18 months earlier, Buntrock answered, "You don't need to have been born and raised here to not want your children to drown. Our children are our future, but they won't be if they drown, will they?")
The governing body of MADC has at long last determined they are in position to make their project known to the public at large. On April 1, they intend to hold a press conference in front of the offices of the Nampa-Meridian Irrigation District to announce that plans are well under way to, as Tara Buntrock put it, "put those creepy canals back to dirt level, just like the Lord made them in the first place."
One Legacy in the Grave?
"There isn't enough farming going on in this county any more to justify keeping these stinking death traps around. I suppose maybe there are a few farms left out by Kuna, but they can put in sprinkler systems just like the rest of us do. Give me one good reason why they can't be on city water. I'm on city water, you're on city water... by gosh, they can be on city water, too."
—MADC spokesman Jim Jaspers (2008)
Jaspers was chosen to articulate MADC's positions because—until four years ago—he had performed similar duties as a lobbyist in Sacramento. Only time will tell if his arguments are convincing enough to turn public opinion in their favor.
Due to the level of secrecy that has surrounded the project from its inception, the awareness of what MADC was planning has been slow to reach those who will be most fundamentally affected by its execution—notably, those "down-canal" of Ada County. It wasn't until late last summer that rumors began to circulate among the upper levels of Canyon County officialdom and the Nampa/Caldwell business community that such a thing was being considered. Initially, the notion was rejected as too absurd to be believed.
"I was out at Centennial shooting a round with Sam Ashworth (the Canyon County ag/arts coordinator)," recalled Henry Craycraft, owner of the John Deere Mart on the Nampa-Caldwell Boulevard. "That's when Sam tells us there's talk about how a bunch of Boise assholes are trying to get the canals shut off. I says to him, 'Sam, not even Boise assholes could come up with something that damn dumb.'"
But the rumors kept coming, gaining more substance with each wave. Evidence turned up that someone from within the administrative offices of the Ada County Highway District was leaking information to a brother-in-law who works as a real estate agent in Nampa. Top ACHD officials had to be "in the loop" early on. The ACHD had been directed by a MADC-affiliated state legislator to supply him with a projection of what it would cost to tear out all the bridges in Ada County in order to not leave unfilled chambers beneath the intersections of roads and canals. There was, and remains, a concern that such chambers could turn into breeding grounds for any number of subterranean species, or even secret "hang-outs" for gang members.
When it became clear that in-filling the canals was not only being considered, but that most of the groundwork had been laid for the actual work to begin, those in Canyon County who were aware of the plan were outraged.
"Well, she'd dry up, I told them," fumed Oscar Brandt, chief hydrologist for the Sunny Slope Fruiting Consortium. Brandt was nearly apoplectic when he spoke of the plan to eliminate the New York Canal. "'You can't do that,' I told them, 'because if you do, there won't be a Lake Lowell.' That's what feeds the lake, you know. The New York Canal. Which turns into Indian Creek. 'No more New York Canal, no more Indian Creek. No more Indian Creek, no more Lake Lowell.' That's what I told them. But I don't think they give a shit."
At present, several Canyon County government, agriculture and business entities are in the process of drafting lawsuits and "cease and desist" orders to stop any further progress on the final phases of MADC's program. They are well "ahead of the curve," compared to Ada County canal users, who are just learning of the project and haven't had time to react.
But even if Ada County dissenters combine with Canyon County forces in one united voice of opposition, it is probably too late.
"That's the kicker in this whole thing," complained Oscar Brandt. "Those MADC birds have had nearly four years to get this thing off the ground. From what we're hearing, they have half the state big-wigs in their pockets by now. How are we supposed to fight that?"
Playing the Canal Canard
"And don't forget the drowning children."
At this point, any efforts to preserve the canals as they are seem doomed. MADC and their powerful allies have simply gained too much momentum to be stopped.
But the question remains as to why MADC feels it necessary to alter the existing topography in such a radical manner and eradicate these vestiges of Ada County's rural past. It is clear what interest the development community has in the project. Said Dale Vernon, "We've come very close to running out of corn fields and pastures to use. What are we supposed to do when they're all gone, just give up and go back to Bakersfield? Hell no. This is my home now. My wife and I have every bit as much stake in Idaho as those Homedale hicks. And the plain fact is [before long] the only space left to put houses on will be where those canals are. It's either that or the railroad right-of-ways. Which would you rather see?"
As for those like Buntrock, Jaspers and many others who have nothing to be gained financially from in-filling the canals, the motives are more complicated, if not entirely convincing. The authors gathered a number of the more vociferous members of MADC around a table in a Holiday Inn conference room to record why they chose to dedicate themselves to this mission.
"This is long overdue," Jaspers claimed. "Every year, we hear about some homeowner who might lose his property because he didn't pay his ditch water bill and he can't even get ditch water. That just infuriates me. It's like the Nazis or something. I say if we get rid of those ditches, we'll get rid of the ditch-Nazis. And good riddance."
"The water in those things is yucky, full of weeds and mud and raccoons and bacterias and God knows what else," said Buntrock. "I heard it can make you sick just by getting some on your skin. If those farmers want their stinky old water to be on the other side of my fence—which cost my husband and me a lot of money, I might add—why didn't they make it clean and sparkly like what's in the fountain out in front of our subdivision? Is that so hard?"
Dale Dicks, another founding member of MADC, is offended by the way the canals look.
"They're big, ugly, empty holes for at least six months a year," he said. "Here we got all these people griping about that big hole downtown where the skyscraper was supposed to go, but think about it: Canals are nothing more than holes in the ground that run for miles and miles. Right? Am I right? They're just horizontal holes."
Yet another participant (who wished not to be identified) said, "Just before we left Simi Valley to come up here, I paid $900 for a registered chocolate Lab. Nine hundred bucks. And when the water's running, we can't keep that damn dog out of the canal. I shit you not, every time a stick floats by, or a dead cat, or anything, she's jumping in after it. And then when she gets out, she makes a bee-line for the doggie door. Last summer, we had to shampoo the carpet about every three weeks, I shit you not. I'm thinking about suing somebody."
"And don't forget about the drowning children," added Buntrock. "The children are our future."
With such intense passions in play, it appears the venerable canals will not be part of Ada County's future. For those who consider the ditches an integral part of the local environment, the best that may be hoped for is what one Meridian councilman (who asked not to be identified at this point) has proposed, and that is to preserve a 50-yard stretch of the Ridenbaugh to serve as a Meridian Heritage Site, to help educate youngsters about their town's history.
Of course, lest one of those youngsters wander too close to the bank, the Heritage Site would have to remain empty—a waterless and grim reminder to local canal lovers of what was once theirs.
Vance T. Rogers is the senior hydrogronomist with the Western States Union for Running Water. Corrine Erwin-Otts is an associate in the law firm of Benchley, Twain, Kiddings & Godtchya, which specializes in protecting the water rights of people who feel uncomfortable speaking in public.