Tuesday, September 27, 2016

What the River Knows: Portneuf River, Pocatello, Idaho

The following is an excerpt from the National Geographic's Water Currents blog, originally posted on July 17, 2016 by Basia Irland. To read the full article with photos, click here.

I flood. That is what I — and all my cousins — do from time to time. It is part of our rhythm. In their hubris, humans build cities and towns right on our banks, then get upset with us when our waters rise and destroy some of their property. They try to control us by building dams and straightening our courses so that we no longer flow naturally, aiding the hydrologic cycle, creating meanders, spreading silt, and sustaining entire ecosystems of aquatic life, plants, and animals.

Concrete channelized Portneuf River as it flows through Pocatello, Idaho.

I am the 124-mile long (200 km) Portneuf River, a tributary of the Snake River, in southeastern Idaho, United States. I begin and end on the ancestral lands of the Shoshone/Bannock Tribe, and I will tell you a story of just one reach of my body as it flows through Pocatello, Idaho, a town founded in 1889, and named for a Shoshone Chief. It is a sad tale of how people cannot think of me as a living being, but rather as a nuisance. Here is how they have mistreated me: They have encased my body in 1.6 miles of concrete, putting me in a straightjacket so that there is nothing natural about me any more. I am not even called a river, but rather a “channel”. Locals sometimes refer to me as “the moat” or “the bunker”. One long-time resident who grew up along my bank remembers that when she was young, her siblings would flush the toilet and then run outside to watch the waste dump directly into my bloodstream.

French Canadian fur traders gave me my name in the early 1800’s. Historic photographs depict me meandering through broad meadows in the semi-arid lands upstream of Pocatello. But a series of events happened that would change my fate. In 1877, the Portneuf Valley became the site of the first railroad in Idaho. The straight line of the raised track bed cut off segments of my flow, and the town was built around the railroad, not around me.
Throughout Pocatello’s history I have periodically flooded. As early as 1938 the Works Progress Administration (WPA) put in riprap – piles of rocks on my shore – to lessen the damage I might do to agricultural fields when I overflow. In 1962 and 1963, I created havoc in the valley again, so in 1967 the Army Corps of Engineers built a concrete channel to “keep me in my place”. Upstream and downstream of the channel, my body is confined by a series of levees. Trees are removed and even small critters such as marmots, who love to sun on my banks, are relocated because the holes they dig might inadvertently breach the levee system.

Marmot sunning on rock rip-rap in the levee.

Continue reading about the pollution of the Portneuf River and efforts to restore this body of water by clicking here

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