Kail Sheppard, manager for the new Sweden Irrigation district

Kail Sheppard, manager of the New Sweden Irrigation District, says members wanted to keep historic 127-year-old head gates. Mortar is beginning to deteriorate at one head gate, which prompted a modernization project and the erection of new gates 70 feet upstream.

A new $900,000 head gate is modernizing the New Sweden Irrigation District in eastern Idaho. It replaces a 127-year-old structure that withstood a devastating flood when the Teton Dam burst in 1976.

“The water washed away the ground around it, but the gate stood intact,” said Kail Sheppard, district manager.

The sturdy concrete and rock gate with its four arched panels span 90 feet. For more than a century, members of Idaho’s oldest irrigation district have relied on it.

Though it withstood a disaster, age has recently caused it to decline.

“Last spring, we noticed mortar was beginning to deteriorate where a gate hinges into a pier,” Sheppard said. “It couldn’t be patched. High water would put too much pressure on that gate.”

The new gate will have three 15-foot-square partially automated panels that will be lifted with electric motors.

“Right now ... two guys use hand cranks to raise it,” Sheppard said.

When engineers advised district members west and south of Idaho Falls to tear down the 127-year-old Great Western Canal head gate, they refused.

“Our members definitely want to keep it because it’s such a big part of our history,” said Sheppard. “We’re Idaho’s first irrigation district. Private irrigation companies are older, but as a district this is the oldest one in the state.”

A new structure is being built about 70 feet upstream from the original gate and should be completed by March 1, 2019. The main canal is 35 miles long, and the entire system has about 125 miles of waterways.

“Our system provides irrigation for about 39,000 acres, with 28,000 acres within the district,” Sheppard said. “We carry water for small canal companies, too.”

Members are financing the $900,000 project with a loan.

“We were able to get a good interest rate at a bank and plan to pay it off in five years,” he said.

The project made Sheppard, 56, reflect on the district’s history and his family’s heritage. In the office, he can point to a map showing where his great grandfather from Sweden, Albert Hjelm, arrived in 1903 and eventually farmed west of Firth.

Land in the district was developed when Chicago investors formed a private company, the Great Western Canal Company, and built the main head gate in 1891. They recruited Swedish farmers in the Midwest after a drought devastated their livelihoods.

The company eventually defaulted on the loan that financed the project. In 1900, local farmers bought the system for $65,000 and established the district.

“At the time, they began making improvements to it,” Sheppard said. “We hope the new head gates last more than a century like the original ones have done.”

Recommended for you