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Flooding overwhelms North Idaho drainage districts

Farmers in North Idaho’s Kootenai Valley say they can’t pump water off their fields fast enough to keep pace with flooding.
John O’Connell

Capital Press

Published on March 29, 2017 9:55AM

Water is evacuated by pumps and a gravity drain from drainage ditches in Northern Idaho’s Kootenai Valley. Farmers in the valley say they have to pump water every spring, as mountain streams are blocked from flowing directly in the river by dikes, but flooding has been extensive this spring.

Courtesy of Tim Dillin

Water is evacuated by pumps and a gravity drain from drainage ditches in Northern Idaho’s Kootenai Valley. Farmers in the valley say they have to pump water every spring, as mountain streams are blocked from flowing directly in the river by dikes, but flooding has been extensive this spring.


BONNERS FERRY, Idaho — Pumping snowmelt into the Kootenai River is an annual spring chore for Tim Dillin and the others who farm in his area of Northern Idaho.

Dillin explained growers who work the roughly 45,000 acres of rain-fed agricultural land in the Kootenai Valley face a unique infrastructural challenge. Earthen dikes block most of the mountain streams — which are routed into drainage ditches across their farms — from the river. When river flows are high, the farmers must close the gravity-fed drains on their ditches and turn on pumps to evacuate the water.

This spring, however, the pumps haven’t kept pace with the runoff, which has inundated vast expanses of farm ground. Dillin expects planting will be delayed by at least two to three weeks.

“Our best spring wheat we get in by April 20-25,” Dillin said. “This year, I think a lot of fields people won’t get planted until the end of May.”

He’s also concerned his late-planted canola may flower in July, when hot temperatures could affect yields.

Snowpack in the region was about 115 percent of normal, but the low-elevation snow melted rapidly, followed by heavy March rains.

“The last time we’ve had this much water was the winter of 1996 to 1997,” Dillin said.

In Southern Idaho, growers form irrigation districts to supply water for farm land. Bob Olson, however, serves as a commissioner with a district filling an opposite role in the Kootenai Valley — providing drainage infrastructure. Olson’s district oversees 7 miles of drainage ditches, a pump house and a portable pump. Since the late 1930s, Olson explained, growers in his area have received payments toward pumping costs under a treaty with operators of Kootenai Lake, located downstream in Canada. Lake operations often back up water into the Kootenai flats, raising river levels above the ditch drains. The situation is complicated when Libby Dam, located upstream from the valley’s growers, makes flood-control releases.

“Most seasons we have to pump, but not like this year,” Olson said. “It’s going to delay us.”

Wes Hubbard, an Idaho Barley Commissioner who farms at the opposite end of the valley from Olson and Dillin, said his son flew him over the area when he was home on spring break. He described what he saw as a “disaster.”

“From the air, it looks to me as much as 50 percent is under water right now,” Hubbard said. “We’re always pumping, especially this time of year with spring runoff, but we’re usually preventative, keeping ditches down to keep things flowing.

“There’s nothing preventative about this.”



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