TWIN FALLS — What a difference a year makes.
A year ago, the southern Idaho desert was under water; this year, the desert is back.
Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen said flooding along the Big Wood River — especially in Hailey — was worse than people feared.
Warm weather hit in January, sending water cascading from mountain streams into the river, causing road and infrastructure damage. River banks collapsed and trees toppled, sending sediment and cobble into the river. As the water receded, it continued to erode the banks and fall trees.
“We had five significant flood peaks, causing a very unpredictable and dangerous set of circumstances,” Schoen said. “Some were living without power and with water in their homes for a couple of months.”
New sediment deposits raised the level of the river, creating new risks by spreading water in a wider area, he said.
“Mother Nature has her own way of doing things,” Schoen said. “We really value the Big Wood River, but it’s a river that likes to wander.”
One home that used to sit a comfortable distance from the river is now barely 15 feet from the water, he said.
“River-straightening projects from 50 years ago are coming back to haunt us” as the river continues to do what it wants, he said. Projects once undertaken to protect one person’s property are now harming someone else’s property.
These man-made diversions created generations ago have consequences, Schoen said. “We’ve learned that the hard way.”
The county is now working with the Army Corps of Engineers to create a study to determine the best practices for restoration and rehabilitation to improve the river’s function and improve the natural habitat, while reducing the risk to property. It’s important to take the long view to protect property now without creating new problems in the future, he said.
“Every action has consequences,” he said. “We want to work along with natural processes.”
Downstream, Magic Reservoir overflowed but the dam held its ground as the Big Wood River poured into it.
“We got by real good as far as the reservoir,” Lynn Harmon, former Big Wood Irrigation District manager, said Thursday.
But water flowing over the banks damaged power plants and roads, cutting off residents in the town of West Magic, said Harmon, who retired in December.
Buhl Highway District has completed $80,000 worth of repairs to the Balanced Rock grade crossing, damaged last February when Salmon Falls Creek flooded, district Manager John Zamora said. Federal Emergency Management Agency funds reimbursed the district.
But no FEMA funds are available yet to repair the River Road culvert that also washed out in February. Estimated repairs to the bridge over Deep Creek exceeded FEMA’s $123,000 maximum during this particular funding process, forcing the district to reapply through another process, Zamora said.
State funds are not available for the project until the district exhausts its FEMA and Federal Highway Administration funds, he said.
Meanwhile, repair work replacing the culvert with a bridge is going smoothly and Zamora expects the project to conclude in mid-May.
South Central Public Health Department issued a boil-water order Feb. 22 for Lincoln County residents northwest of Shoshone when groundwater wells became contaminated from flooding. The boil-water order soon turned into a do-not-drink order, as stinky green water flowed from faucets.
Lagoon water from a local dairy had made its way to the aquifer. Residents affected by the contamination soon realized they couldn’t do laundry or bathe in the water — nor could they allow their pets and livestock to drink it.
Dean and Chris Tschannen’s home is outside of the affected area, but they found themselves hauling potable water from the rural fire station to their rental house and some 90 head of cattle. The chore added an extra three or four hours of work to their day.
“Green manure was coming out of the faucets,” Chris Tschannen said Thursday. “The well water finally cleared up after the irrigation water came in and flushed the canals.”
Lincoln County resident Stephanie Braun said it was four months before her family of five could take a shower or do laundry in their house.
“I had to go to town to wash clothes,” Braun said. “Even flushing toilet made everything stink.”
The Tschannen’s elderly renter still refuses to drink the well water, a year after the contamination.
“It’s in the pipes,” Chris Tschannen said. “She’s still drinking bottled water.”
Lincoln County provided bottled water to drink and many folks from outside the Shoshone community came to the rescue by donating water in gallon jugs.
“I was so happy when people from Twin Falls and Jerome brought water for cooking and washing dishes,” Braun said. “I’ve never taken water for granted, and I’m really appreciative of the help.”
Minidoka and Cassia counties were hit hard when warm weather melted an abnormally deep snowpack last February. With the ground still frozen, snowmelt had nowhere to go, causing severe flooding.
Rupert resident Betty Schwendiman’s home was a complete loss when floodwaters filled her basement and covered the ground floor of the house, her daughter-in-law Delinda Schwendiman said Thursday. Betty, now 87, was devastate by the loss of the home where she and her husband, Alan, raised their children. Alan died in 2005.
“She told me this was the most traumatic event of her life,” her daughter-in-law said.
But friends and family saved her furniture and belongings, and moved Betty and her 6-year-old chiweenie dog, Tiny, into her son Wayne’s home in Burley.
While losing the home was a tragedy, it brought a lot of family and friends together, Delinda Schwendiman said.
“It’s very awesome what people did,” she said, referring to the nearly $5,000 donated to Betty by the community.
“We’ve remodeled our house to accommodate for her needs and comfort,” she said. “She’s taking it all in stride. She’s back sewing and quilting — those are signs of contentment.”
Betty is now closer to her physicians, she said, and loves her new view of Mt. Harrison.
TWIN FALLS — Two-thirds of Magic Valley public high schools surpassed the statewide average for 2017 graduation rates.
The Idaho State Department of Education released numbers Wednesday. Overall, nearly 80 percent of last year’s Gem State high school seniors graduated — a rate virtually unchanged from 2016.
Schools use the information to see how they can improve and better help students who are at risk of not making it to the finish line.
“Our real goal is to be over 90 percent and even into the mid-90s, if possible,” said L.T. Erickson, secondary programs director for the Twin Falls School District.
Canyon Ridge is home to the school district’s Newcomer Center for refugee students, who make up between 8 and 9 percent of the student body. Students often arrive without any formal schooling or had interruptions in their education.
“It’s amazing what they do to get those students graduated,” Erickson said.
Twin Falls high schools put forth a “herculean effort” to help students who are at risk of not graduating, he said.
The state’s education department is required to release high school graduation rates every year. For a few years, it has used a cohort model — a federal calculation showing how many students graduate with a regular high school diploma within four years. It counts some students as “non-graduates,” including some alternative school students, GED graduates, special education students who earn a modified diploma and students who withdraw from school or transfer out of state without documentation.
That has caused concern and criticism from some local school leaders. Erickson said he likes how every student is tracked for four years, but disagrees with other parts of the method.
In a statement Wednesday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra praised the data.
“It is exciting to have three years of data using the same formula to calculate rates,” she said. “This allows us to dig deeper into the data, identify trends and ask questions.”
Overall, the state’s average graduation rate is 79.67 percent — just 0.01 percent higher than the year before. About 36 percent of high schools had 90 percent or more of its seniors graduate.
Here in south-central Idaho, 11 of 32 public high schools fell below the statewide average. Of those, five are alternative schools, where it’s typical to take more than four years to graduate. On the other end of the spectrum, four local schools — each with fewer than 20 students — had a perfect 100 percent graduation rate: Carey School, Raft River Junior/Senior High School in Malta, Bliss and Murtaugh.
In Kimberly, the graduation rate was 92 percent. The rate dipped a bit in 2016, but climbed about 6 percentage points for 2017. Superintendent Luke Schroeder said he was pleasantly surprised to see Kimberly High’s graduation rate was one of the best in the Magic Valley. Community demographics play a role, he said, adding that local families value education.
“Administration and staff take a heads-on approach to identify kids who are behind in credits and off track for graduation,” Schroeder said. They’ll go as far as pulling students into the school office for a class period of two to make sure they’re staying on top of their studies.
But Schroeder said he thinks a lot of schools use that same proactive approach. “I don’t think we have any secret sauce here.”
In Cassia County, three of four high school campuses had a graduation rate above 90 percent: Burley High School, Oakley High School and Raft River High School. In nearby Rupert, Minico High School came in at 89.6 percent.
“I’m very excited that our graduation rates are that high,” said Sandra Miller, assistant superintendent for the Cassia County School District. “Our goal is to graduate 100 percent of our students, if possible. Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances.”
Across Idaho, a couple of problematic areas are virtual schools and alternative schools. To better track how many students graduate, the Idaho State Department of Education plans to add a five-year cohort rate in the future, according to a Wednesday statement.
Of 4,604 Idaho students who didn’t graduate with their class in 2017, 21 percent came back to school this year. And 32 of them have already earned a diploma.
Magic Valley High takes in students from across the region to help them graduate by the time they turn 21, Erickson said. The school district is committed to helping students finish high school and doesn’t worry about the impact on the graduation rate.
“When we enroll them,” he said, “we know they’re going to count as a dropout against us.”
TWIN FALLS — Jayco broke ground Thursday on an expansion it hopes will more than double its Twin Falls workforce in the next year.
The new 248,000 square-foot production building that will house two manufacturing lines for the travel trailer manufacturer. The company employs 238 people in Twin Falls, but plans to bring another 300 or more jobs to the community by the end of the year.
The new building will open sometime this summer.
“We do feel really optimistic,” the company’s marketing director, Renee Jones, told the Times-News. “There must be something you are doing right here in Twin Falls. We could have selected from a lot of different communities, and we feel confident in this community.”
Twin Falls Mayor and Chamber of Commerce CEO Shawn Barigar recalled hosting a ribbon cutting for Jayco’s opening in Twin Falls in 2005. It was one of his first events he coordinated with the Chamber.
“I’ve kind of grown with the company here,” he said.
Jayco’s arrival to Idaho 12 years ago played a part in diversifying the economy, Lt. Gov. Brad Little said. The company supports Idaho’s large recreational industry.
Jayco started in 1968 in northern Indiana and sold to Thor Industries in 2016. As it celebrates 50 years, the company plans to continue supporting the community and promoting family values.
“We don’t just build travel trailers and fifth wheels and units that we pull out of here,” Jayco COO Matt Thompson said. “We build dreams. … We truly create generations of family fun.”
The Twin Falls facility produces the company’s Jay Flight brand of travel trailers. The new building will have one manufacturing line dedicated for Jay Flight production, and the other line will be used for what the market demands.
Jayco trailers are shipped out of Twin Falls to dealerships in the western U.S. and Canada. Bish’s RV is the only Jayco dealer in the Magic Valley.
The company has four campuses and is expanding another one in Indiana, Jones said. The new Twin Falls building, however, will be the largest. The company has already begun recruiting for the new jobs.
Jayco will work with Southern Idaho Economic Develop Organization and the College of Southern Idaho to build long-term programs to cultivate talent, Jones said.
“We’d like to have the positions filled within six months from when we complete the facility,” Jones said.
Employees at Jayco all work the same shift, from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekdays, Thompson said. Forty percent of the company’s workforce has been with Jayco for five years or more, and 20 percent have been with Jayco for more than a decade.
“Working with the state of Idaho, the city of Twin, it was crucial in our decision to continue to expand and invest in Twin Falls,” Thompson said. “But what made it the easiest decision for us was the family, the Jayco family, we have here.”
The Idaho Department of Commerce’s Economic Advisory Council approved Jayco’s expansion for a tax reimbursement incentive, valued at $4.9 million over 12 years. The company can begin receiving reimbursements once it creates at least 50 jobs. Idaho Commerce spokeswoman Megan Hill previously told the Times-News that Jayco would be reimbursed 24 percent of its income, payroll and sales taxes.
The average yearly wage for the new jobs will be $43,300, and the expansion was projected to bring direct state revenue of $20.4 million.
“You guys in this community have a special place,” Little said, addressing Twin Falls officials. “We never drag you kicking and screaming into prosperity — it’s just the opposite.”
Recently, anywhere from 12 to 20 percent of North Valley’s student body has been absent with flu-like symptoms and stomach bugs, school principal Jeff Klamm said. Many staff members have been sick, too.
“We’ve been utilizing all the subs we can find,” he said. And “coming to school sick is not best for students’ education.”
With five or six students absent in every class, “you have a lot of re-teaching to do,” Klamm said, adding it’s not an effective use of time.
In Hazelton, campuses in the Valley School District — with a total of about 500 students — will close Friday due to a high rate of absences this week because of the flu or respiratory illnesses, Superintendent Eric Anderson wrote in an email to the Times-News.
“We will thoroughly clean the building and look to reopen next week,” he said.
At North Valley Academy — a public charter school with 235 students in kindergarten through 12th grades — a cleaning crew worked Thursday to clean every classroom and the school’s bus company is cleaning school buses.
The school also sent home tips for parents on how to help their children recover and get healthy, Klamm said.
The closures are the latest in a string of illnesses affecting Magic Valley school campuses and communities. Idaho public health officials are worried about a particularly severe influenza season so far, with the most deaths reported in seven years.
In Camas County, the school reopened Monday after a flu outbreak prompted a two-day closure. Whooping cough cases have been confirmed within the last month in Twin Falls, Kimberly and Minidoka County schools, although none have closed.