TWIN FALLS — On one of her runs through Rock Creek Canyon, Shelley McEuen smelled something foul. A stench that polluted the otherwise harmonious surroundings of the creek.
After running along the creek for 10 years, “I started asking questions,” said McEuen, an English professor at the College of Southern Idaho.
As she searched the history of the creek, she found a startling fact: The riparian area that had become so dear to her heart had once channeled raw sewage from homes in Twin Falls to the Snake River. By 1957, Twin Falls was pumping more than 3 million gallons of effluent per day into Rock Creek — sewage that entered the Snake River just 5 miles away. Voters defeated a measure to build a sewer treatment plant in 1958, but approved the proposed plant in 1960. The plant went into operation two years later.
But more than 60 years later, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality estimates some 30 open sewers still flow into Rock Creek as it wanders through the most scenic areas of the city.
“I am a runner, and I fell in love with Rock Creek and the way it feels so secluded,” McEuen said. “I love how when you drop down into the canyon it feels like you are in another world, yet downtown is just blocks away.”
She’s not alone in her love of the creek. Rock Creek has become a recreational destination for many, including anglers, rock climbers, disc golf enthusiasts, hikers, dog walkers, picnickers and campers.
A group of outdoor enthusiasts called Friends of Rock Creek is hoping to transform the creek and canyon into a safe asset for the community, to return the once-pristine area to its natural state to be enjoyed by generations to come.
While much has been done to restore the health of the creek, E. coli from livestock manure and human sewage continues to threaten the health of those who recreate in the creek and along its shores.
How do Magic Valley residents overcome this barrier that prevents the creek from reaching its full potential? By telling Rock Creek’s story and bringing awareness to its problem, the group says.
Steve Gobel remembers fishing in Rock Creek in the 1970s.
“There was a thick film all over the bottom of the creek that looked like snot — I’m not exaggerating either,” Gobel said on one of his trips to Rock Creek Park just off Addison Avenue West.
He has enjoyed Rock Creek since he was a child in the 1960s, visiting his grandparents who lived near the creek. Now that he's retired, the creek has become an important part of his daily routine.
Gobel watched for decades as Rock Creek Canyon evolved from a tranquil wilderness area to a seedy, unsafe part of town as folks turned a blind eye to its physical and social deterioration.
“Someone called me the guardian of Rock Creek,” he said. “I’m not really, but I do pay attention to things.”
And he asks questions.
On a recent outing, he noticed a man from IDEQ standing in the middle of the creek pulling water samples. Overcome with curiosity, Gobel struck up a conversation with Shell Howard, who warned him of the high levels of E. coli in the creek.
“He told me, ‘I wouldn’t eat any fish out of there,’” Gobel said.
But Howard wasn’t talking as an official from the IDEQ.
“That’s just me, personally,” Howard later told the Times-News. “It’s not just the E. coli. The problem is, we don’t know what else is in there. There is so much we don’t know.”
And the DEQ doesn’t have money in the budget for more intensive monitoring, he said. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation pays for what monitoring is done now.
How dangerous are the E. coli levels in Rock Creek?
“We don’t know that either,” Howard said. The water quality either passes or fails the test; it’s not tested for concentration. On the Sawtooth National Forest, where the creek starts, it passes the test. Below the forest line — and all the way to the Snake River — it fails.
But that shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise.
“Everything you want to know is on the DEQ website,” Howard said. “Nothing is secret.”
‘An oasis in the desert’ — Rock Creek’s historic past
Rock Creek’s many tributaries begin in the South Hills above Magic Mountain, converging as they wind for miles through canyons in both Twin Falls and Cassia counties before exiting the forest. Just outside the mouth of Rock Creek Canyon south of Hansen, the tree-lined creek provided a respite for long-ago travelers headed west on the Oregon Trail.
An emigrant’s journal entry called the area an oasis in the desert.
“Stagecoach King” Ben Holladay’s Overland mail route in 1864 through Kelton, Utah, joined the Oregon Trail at Rock Creek. Holladay’s Rock Creek Station and James Bascom’s general store served some of the area’s earliest residents. The store, which still stands today, was the first trading post between Fort Hall and Fort Boise, and the first building constructed in what is now Twin Falls County.
The area’s earliest homesteaders, cattlemen mostly, settled in the foothills of the South Hills along Rock Creek’s tributaries. Emigrants — many of Danish descent — started the town of Rock Creek, the first settlement in the Magic Valley, upstream from the stage station now known as Stricker Ranch. Pleasant Valley formed downstream from Stricker.
Because of Rock Creek’s steep ravine, wagon trains on the Oregon Trail could cross the creek at only two locations — Rock Creek Station and just south of where Amalgamated Sugar Co. is today. The basalt-lined ravine, cut through the millennia, also limited settlers’ use of the creek for irrigation; but the creek did provide drinking water for people and livestock.
When irrigation water was diverted from the Snake River at Milner at the turn of the 20th century, investors claimed the “school section” nearest the convergence of Rock Creek and the Snake River to build Twin Falls. Landowners were not required to “prove up” land in a school sections like homesteaders were required to do.
The creek sliced off the southwest corner of the section, giving the early town site its funny shape. Twin Falls’ first borders were Blue Lakes Boulevard on the east, Washington Street on the west, what we now know as Addison Avenue on the north, and, roughly, Rock Creek on the south-southwest.
Townsfolk bucketed water from the creek into barrels and hauled it in wagons to irrigate newly planted trees — and to drink — before canal water made its way to town.
The earliest industrial businesses were built along Rock Creek on the south edge of Twin Falls. Amalgamated Sugar, Independent Meat Co. and Twin Falls Livestock Commission are still doing business. The railroad runs north of the creek — where commodity warehouses once thrived.
From Twin Falls, the creek stays in its ravine until it reaches the Snake River just below Auger Falls.
As the town grew along the creek, so did the water and ground pollution. Before modern technologies were developed and environmental laws written, both the creek and river canyons were sanctioned dumping grounds.
Out of sight, out of mind
Pam Oliver, who lives on the Snake River Canyon’s north rim overlooking the mouth of Rock Creek, purchased property several years ago for the view. From her bench on the canyon’s edge, she watches Rock Creek as it enters the river, swirling foam and a funny color of green into the river water.
But just out of view, over the edge of the canyon, are piles of rusted cans, wire and metal auto parts from the generations who used the canyons to dispose of unwanted items.
As a child, Les Drake lived outside Twin Falls on what is now Eastland Drive South. His grandparents lived next door.
In the mid-1960s, there was no garbage pick-up outside the city limits, so his grandfather set out several trash barrels for the family’s use. Glass went in one barrel, metal in another, and flammables — paper, cardboard and wood — went in the “burn barrel” to be incinerated.
When the barrels were full, young Drake and his grandfather loaded the barrels onto a trailer made from a pickup bed, and hauled them to the Snake River Canyon upstream from Shoshone Falls, where “everyone” dumped their trash. His grandfather would back the trailer to the rim, and they would empty the barrels into the canyon.
“A pile of dirt made a little backstop so you didn’t back off the canyon rim,” he said. “From my young perspective, it looked official.”
It’s just the way it was, Drake said, and no one questioned it.
With her interest in Rock Creek piqued, McEuen, now Howard’s wife and a member of the Magic Valley Trail Enhancement Committee, is writing her dissertation on how Twin Falls has used the creek to benefit its citizenry through the years – at an ecological cost.
Rock Creek Canyon within the city has become “neglected urban wild space,” she wrote in “The Stories We Tell, The Landscapes We Deserve,” an ecocritical article juxtaposing yesterday’s norms against the standards of today. Stories such as Rock Creek’s “shape our sense of community, along with our values,” she said.
“When mentioning Rock Creek, the overwhelming response consistently falls into two categories,” McEuen wrote, “the first being concern for personal safety due to the character of the people who frequent the area, and the second a sentiment of ‘It’s better than it was,’ the latter referring to the federal clean up effort occurring in the late 1970s.”
Prior to the cleanup, part of the Rural Clean Water Program initiated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the creek was “severely impacted by irrigated agriculture,” wrote the EPA’s Getchen Hayslip in a post-program analysis in the 1990s. “Impairments included phosphate, organic nitrogen, suspended solids, turbidity, bacteria, and toxic chemicals. The uses of Rock Creek for recreation, drinking water supply, aesthetic enjoyment and a healthy fishery were severely impaired.”
In cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, Soil Conservation Service, Agricultural Research Services, IDEQ, and the Twin Falls and Snake River Soil Conservation Districts, the program resulted in a 75 percent decrease in sediment and a 68 percent decrease in total phosphorous in Rock Creek.
“If reductions in pollutants continue as past trends have indicated, Rock Creek could eventually fully support all designated beneficial uses,” Hayslip wrote.
That’s what many, including Howard, are counting on.
“So much has been done,” he said, “but we have a ways to go.”
While trails can be improved and trash can be cleaned up, bacteria in the creek is a different story.
“Until the public decides that this is important, nothing will be done,” Howard said. “How much (contamination) are we willing to accept and how much are we willing to pay to fix it?”
“It’s a beautiful resource,” said Mike Young, program manager of the outdoor recreation leadership program at the College of Southern Idaho. “But I see kids swimming in it, and they shouldn’t be.”
The group would like to see the walking trail along the creek cleaned up and possibly expanded into a green belt that connects to the canyon rim trail.
“Amazing benefits come out of greenbelts,” Young said. “We’re all looking for safe places to recreate. We need more resources in the Magic Valley to keep people happy and healthy.
“We’ve got to start talking about it today — not in 20 years.”