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.