Idaho historian stirs debate over who should control of our water

The Arid West is a term sometimes used to describe the region that includes Idaho’s Snake River Plain. Idaho’s Snake River Plain was indeed a dry and uninviting place when John Wesley Powell’s surveyors assessed its potential for agriculture in the 1890s.

While the need for water was rarely debated, how to harness the Snake River and its tributaries was at the heart of many reclamation clashes throughout the 20th century and continues today. Water is a key component to growth in Idaho, and it must be managed if we are to have any hope for sustainable development in this arid region.

Former Boise State University history professor Hugh Lovin (1928-2014) recognized this fact, and it directed decades of his work in studying just how water was controlled in Idaho’s Snake River Plain. “Complexity in a Ditch” is a compilation of writings by Lovin that present an environmental history of the state that demonstrates how irrigation was not a guaranteed business. Lovin’s articles document the political challenges of developing farmland in the Arid West, with most of his attention on the farmland around Twin Falls.

Lovin’s reflections on the success and failures of irrigation in Idaho present a fair look at the significance of reclamation. For Lovin, the history of Idaho is not a sequence of heroic pioneers overcoming nature to shape the landscape for agriculture. Lovin’s Idaho history gives agency to the environment by recounting numerous times investors and farmers alike miscalculated the desert’s unwillingness to grow crops.

Even so, Lovin also documents where developers succeeded. He focused on several projects that took advantage of the Carey Act. The Federal Desert Land Act of 1894 — or Carey Act — enticed private companies to build irrigation systems in return for the sale of water rights. While Lovin does not fully endorse the success of the Carey Act, he often concludes that private enterprise was more efficient than federally managed programs.

In his writings, Lovin shows how the Twin Falls area privately built projects compared with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Boise and Minidoka projects. Lovin concludes that the Carey Act facilitated private investment, which resulted in more acreage watered than that of federally managed projects.

As a Boisean who has studied the Boise Project and has reaped the benefits of its canal water, I was first skeptical of Lovin’s criticism of our federal project. I felt he gave too much credence to Carey Act projects and their private developers; however, those objections just in a way proved his overall point: that Idaho’s water affects us all.

I am not a farmer. My family and I had nothing to do with the growth of Idaho’s farmland. I once rented a house on the Bench with irrigation water from the local irrigation district. That is the extent of my connection to irrigation in Idaho’s Snake River Plain.

But with that little experience, my education in history and my personal beliefs, I tend to favor federal reclamation. I see the value in it and trust the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers. That is just where I stand. Isn’t it funny that citizens of Idaho can and do take a stand on such a complicated matter? Isn’t it interesting that many of us take a side when faced with the question of federal versus private reclamation?

To outsiders, it must seem like an odd thing to debate, but for those who study Idaho’s history, we know its significance. From the Hells Canyon High Dam to the Sagebrush Rebellion, the question of federal vs. private is ingrained in the history of Idaho. For anyone seeking to expand their understanding of those intricacies, Lovin’s “Complexity in a Ditch” is an insightful addition to the conversation.

Jim Duran is a digital archivist at Boise State University’s Albertsons Library.

“Complexity in a Ditch: Bringing Water to the Idaho Desert”

by Hugh Lovin;

Washington State University Press ($26.95)