Gilbert White once said, “Floods are an act of God; flood damages result from the acts of men,” and he was right. For thousands of years, humans have altered the natural course of water throughout the world to accomplish their own devices. Communities have been built around rivers because they provided for the needs of the people. While rivers provide many benefits to communities, rivers are harmed by damming, channelizing, diverting, contaminating and littering. Those impacts have affected water systems over time, for so long, in fact, that many of us aren’t quite sure what a naturally functioning river looks like, or should act like.
As residents in the Della View area in Hailey for more than 15 years, my wife, Carmen, and I are too familiar with routine preparation for the arrival of spring and its annual melt. I can walk from my house to Draper Preserve and the river in just five minutes. We were significantly impacted by the flood of 2017, resulting in a thousand sandbags being placed around my home and the installation of several sump pumps. My approach to flood management is to prepare for the flood in ways that do not harm my neighbors, or the river. Since I have chosen to live in the floodplain, we are taking actions to mitigate impacts so flooding does not constitute an emergency. We are accepting responsibility for our choices.
As a result of the 2017 flood, we purchased a bladder to put around our home, installed sump pumps and made certain they work, and assured our flood insurance is adequate; there are other options one can explore. The reality, while inconvenient and incredibly burdensome, is that rivers have and will always continue to flood, regardless of how much you channelize, dike or dam them. But floods also benefit the river’s ecosystem. While I am a resident who cares strongly for my livelihood and that of my neighbors, I also care deeply about the health of our river. Which raises the question: How do we maintain the balance of a healthy river with people who have built homes in the floodplain?
We know—thanks to a 2016 study by Biota Research & Consulting and commissioned by the Land Trust, Trout Unlimited and partners—that 52 percent of the Big Wood from the SNRA to Stanton Crossing is disconnected from its floodplain. That disconnect has only exacerbated flood events. A functioning river requires access to the floodplain, which creates a natural and complex system that provides flood and erosion control. For our community, the Big Wood is much more than just a channel that holds water. Healthy rivers also allow for groundwater recharge, increase fish and wildlife diversity, increase habitat complexity and benefit the local economy.
Many of the decisions to build in the floodplain over the course of our community’s history were made well before we built or purchased houses. Right now, we have the opportunity to make a significant difference in restoring our river. There are collaborations working to restore our river’s natural function while making decisions based upon the entire ecosystem, and they deserve our support. It may seem contrary, but the issues of flooding and river health go hand in hand. Stakeholders like the Land Trust, Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, Blaine County, the city of Hailey and the city of Ketchum understand that.
The approach of reconnecting the river to its floodplain and side channels creates a healthier system. However, there is much confusion as to whether that strategy creates flooding issues downriver for other neighbors. But look at the alternative—the city of Pocatello has channelized the entirety of the Portneuf River into a concrete chute. That river is now effectively dead within city limits. Is that what we want here? I believe we need to let the river be the river.
As a resident, my drinking water comes from the Big Wood. As an angler and conservationist, my recreation depends on the health of the Big Wood. This past year has been another big snow year, thanks to a record February. If our river is to be able to handle the task of filtering snowmelt and runoff through our valley and to our fields, then it must have the ability to access the floodplain. The strategy of protecting and reconnecting the river to the existing floodplain while also removing unnecessary infrastructure like outdated dikes and levees is a smart one. As a homeowner, a conservationist, and someone who cares deeply for our community, it’s a strategy I think we should all be on board with.
Ed Northen is a resident of Hailey.