TWIN FALLS, Idaho – Accustomed to drought, south-central Idaho was overwhelmed this winter by simply too much water.
Snowstorms cloaked the mountains and valleys. The saturated ground froze, buckling asphalt. Then sudden runoff in February and March wrecked more roads and left people scrambling to save their homes and properties from destruction.
By early spring, much of the water had receded, but irrigation districts, road workers, ranchers, homeowners and local governments were still grappling with the effects.
It’s far from over.
Newlyweds Eduardo and Shaleana Vega got an unexpected test of their marriage ties when their house on River Bend Drive flooded March 31.
The young Gooding couple had purchased the house by the Big Wood River in April 2016 – shortly before their June wedding. They’d been told the house wasn’t in a flood zone.
But in March, as Magic Reservoir spilled into the Big Wood River, Gooding County properties near the river were put under a flood advisory. The Vegas received the warning just days before floodwater poured thigh-deep into their crawlspace.
“I got up at 2 in the morning (March 31) to check the river, and it was pretty full,” 21-year-old Eduardo recalled.
By 10 a.m. that day, a neighbor reached out to the Vegas at work, warning them about the encroaching river. But it was too late to prevent the damage.
“It’s kind of made us stronger and realize that we’re grateful for our family and friends,” said Shaleana, 22.
Concerned about electrical hazards in the crawlspace, the Vegas turned off the power and moved in with Shaleana’s parents, who live near their workplace. After the water receded, they reconnected the power to fan-dry the house.
But the danger hadn’t passed. And this time, the Vegas were determined to be prepared for another flood.
As of April 17, they were still staying with Shaleana’s parents and had moved their furniture onto pallets. Friends donated straw bales and hay bales that, combined with sandbags and plastic, created a barrier around their house.
The Vegas feared that a new round of flooding expected in late April could be even worse.
“A lot of people have said we’re supposed to be getting more water,” Eduardo said. “It’s kind of like a waiting game.”
Meanwhile, they also were struggling to get answers about the damage in the crawlspace and the garage.
“We’re trying to get a bunch of feedback from different contractors,” Shaleana said.
As of mid-April, she’d heard conflicting reports. The Vegas know they will have to replace the ventilation pipes and spray for mold. It’s also likely they will have to pump their septic tank, get their well tested and replace some insulation and drywall, Eduardo said. And the driveway will need more gravel.
“It’s been hard on us because this is our first house me and my wife bought together,” he said.
The couple set up a donation account at Zions Bank, and a GoFundMe account under the name “Vega House Flood.”
“It’s a crappy situation,” Shaleana said. “But we have great help and good resources around us.”
Not a drop to drink
Every day in early April, it took Chris Tschannen and her husband, Dean, about two hours to haul 2,000 gallons of water to their ranch.
By then, they were well-practiced. It was Feb. 15 when they discovered the contamination in their well northwest of Shoshone. Residents of Lincoln County reported smelly, murky water in their homes following a winter of unprecedented snowmelt, a suspected fissure in the bedrock and a dairy’s illegal pumping of wastewater into the Milner-Gooding Canal.
The Tschannens’ daily water delivery was a necessity for their beef cattle and for an elderly couple renting a trailer there.
The water in the trailer’s kitchen sink “was green and nasty and smelled horrible,” Tschannen recalled.
The well tested positive for high levels of E. coli, making water on the ranch unusable even for showering.
“It’s been tough,” said tenant Edna Hellwinkel, 85, whose son lives nearby and warned her of the contamination. “We had to depend on my son or Dean to bring us water.”
Initially the Tschannens brought safe water from a nearby dairy, but later they were driving about a mile to Shoshone Fire Station No. 2.
But Hellwinkel and her 88-year-old partner, Marvin Bartels, still couldn’t turn on faucets for showering and washing dishes.
“At our age, you just don’t jump up and do something different,” Hellwinkel said.
Still, they managed. The couple got water into their travel trailer and used that bathroom for showering – then dashed back through the cold to the house.
Hellwinkel recalled melting snow at one point to wash her pots and pans, as using paper plates had added to the amount of garbage they’d have to haul out.
“People don’t realize how inconvenient it is when you can’t turn on the faucet and get water,” she said.
After about a month, the Tschannens bypassed the well and connected the house’s water system to pods, refilling them with water hauled from the fire station.
But bottled water was still a necessity for drinking and cooking. Tschannen said the well at her house tested positive for coliform bacteria, so she and her husband were also drinking bottled water.
“Until the water’s all clear out here, I don’t think anyone feels safe drinking it,” she said April 6.
The water at the trailer couldn’t easily be tested while the pods were hooked up to the house, but Tschannen planned to watch how neighbors’ wells were doing. Even once the danger passes, she plans to continue having her wells tested from now on, probably two or three times a year.
By early April, well water had improved considerably but was not yet safe. The city of Shoshone continued to provide potable water and water for livestock out of its own wells. The county purchased bottled water to supply residents.
“We’ve got people coming in and out of the station all day long,” Casey Kelley, Shoshone City and Rural Fire Protection District chief, said April 4. “We’ve gone through almost 60,000 gallons of water up to now.”
Dead or orphaned calves
Cattle calving on the range in February had a hard time amid snow and ice.
“The condition was such there was no place to get out of the weather,” said Marty Bennett, who breeds Angus cattle about five miles east of Dietrich. “I don’t think there’s a rancher out here that wasn’t impacted.”
Calves born in those conditions can die or suffer health consequences afterward, and Bennett estimated he lost twice the usual number of newborns. Although he hadn’t counted the bodies, he figured it may have been close to 10 percent of his February births. Other ranchers could have lost closer to 15 percent, he said.
In a cattle market where prices are down, they’ll have to tighten their belts to absorb the additional revenue loss.
“This year we’re going to kind of get by with what we have,” Bennett said of his own operations. “We’re not going to make any new improvements.”
He was able to rescue some of the calves found while searching the fields in the wee hours of the morning. The calves were brought into the barn to recuperate. In a few cases, the mother either could not be found or later abandoned her young.
“We got four to five of those little orphans left,” Bennett said April 5.
His employees would have to bottle-feed them twice a day for at least four to six weeks.
Other calves that survived still had complications from the cold. Bennett, who is also a veterinarian, figures he used two to three times more medication this winter to treat his herd for lameness, swollen feet and illness spread by crowding in deep snow.
“Mother Nature,” he said, “is sometimes relentless, unforgiving.”
Tennis ball in mouth, the small black Labrador swam over the submerged boat dock toward her owner, who waited in camouflage waders. Six-month-old Naga was at Centennial Waterfront Park in mid-April for exercise and training as a future “duck dog.”
James Medlin of Jerome apologized profusely as the wet animal darted happily toward bystanders. Normally, he said, they’d do this water-based fetch routine above Shoshone Falls, in a small park near the boat launch.
“There’s no beach,” Medlin said. “It’s all underwater.”
Besides, the swift water there posed a safety risk for Naga.
In fact, recreation all along the Magic Valley stretch of the Snake River was feeling the big-snowpack effect.
High flows prompted Idaho Power Co. to close the Shoshone Falls boat access in March. Idaho Power spokesman Brad Bowlin said there was concern for boaters’ safety with the high water and the debris it brought, which would have to be cleaned up once the water receded.
Farther downstream, another project still waited for completion in mid-April. The road into the Relish Whitewater takeout near Hagerman had eroded due to February flooding. It was temporarily open but would have to be closed for repairs later in the season, Bowlin said.
Idaho Power was also warning boaters about Bliss Bridge before the takeout. Watercraft that would normally be able to pass under it couldn’t on some days because of the river’s height. Scout ahead before hitting the water, he advised.
Centennial Waterfront Park’s boat docks, meanwhile, were usable but partly underwater.
AWOL Adventure Sports had to have trees trimmed above a nonmotorized boat dock, which owner Paul Melni said was floating about 10 feet higher than usual in mid-April. And because an expanse of water still covered one end of the dock, he improvised by launching kayaks from the shore.
The park vendor was also having a late start to its watercraft rental season.
Melni could hardly have asked for a better opening day for kayak rentals in 2016, when temperatures reached 71 degrees on April 2, and the park vendor did almost 100 rentals.
But this year, following weeks of heavy flows and bad weather, the business attempted an opening weekend April 15. It was 53 degrees at 2 p.m., and the brave few who attempted to paddle against 24,000 cubic feet per second of rushing water returned shortly.
“They came back kind of shivering,” he said.
Melni called it quits, and the next day was no better, with wind that prevented AWOL from doing rentals.
AWOL planned to watch flows and attempt rentals again later this month. Melni expected that with the high flows he wouldn’t offer paddleboards or sit-on kayaks early in the season.
The Shoshone Falls boat ramp may reopen by Memorial Day, Bowlin said, depending on how snowmelt affects water levels.
Parakeets and barbed wire
As floodwaters in their pasture rose to 6 feet in February, Coreen and James Hart moved their cows to a neighbor’s place. But when it was safe for the animals to return, the Harts discovered they had another problem: As the water froze, thawed and receded, it had broken the barbed wire around the cow’s enclosure.
“The ice froze the barbed wire fence and snapped it in countless places,” Coreen said.
James was still working in late March to repair the broken fences at their property north of Acequia. The cows waited nearby in a smaller enclosure.
But the damaged fence was a much smaller loss than Coreen discovered in her chicken coop: A hundred or so parakeets had all drowned.
“My poor babies are gone,” said Coreen, who has raised and sold parakeets for seven years.
While the birds had plenty of perches, she believes they must have thought the 4 feet of water with spilled seed on top was the ground. “They met their maker instead.”
At $15 apiece, Coreen figures she lost around $1,500 of parakeets, plus a few chickens.
Coreen hasn’t decided whether she will get back into raising parakeets, but she considers herself lucky that her house wasn’t damaged.
“The only thing we could claim was the parakeets.”
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