Pocatello. Don’t let the Army Corps ruin the Portneuf River again!

On Aug. 31, it’s time to defend our river, our recreation, our wildlife, and our property-

Don’t forget the public meeting the City is holding tonight, August 31 at 5:30 PM to 7:30 PM in the City Council Chambers.

Here is a letter from Dr. Chuck Trost. If you are interested in birds and live in Pocatello, you know who he is.

Many people are disturbed about the proposed removal of the trees along the Greenway at North City Park.  This beautiful and shaded walkway will look like a hot war zone without the trees.  I would like to know whether the city plans to remove all the trees on both sides of the river, as well as both sides of the levee?  These trees also keep the Portneuf River cool, which should be one of the goals of the city.

Also, it seems to me that the levee doesn’t start until the USGS cable crossing, which is a quarter mile below the end of the cement flood control structure.  Why do those trees upstream of the levee need removing?    I want to reiterate all the birds that will be negatively affected by this tree removal project.  They would include  Willow Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, both Western and Eastern Kingbirds, Bullock’s Oriole, Calliope, Black-chinned, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, American and Lesser Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, Brewer’s Blackbird, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Robins, nesting Canada Geese, Mourning Doves, Northern Flickers, both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, nesting Mallards, Common Goldeneyes, Wood Ducks, Double-crested Cormorants, Black-billed Magpies, American Crows, Eurasian Starlings, House Sparrows, House Finches, and American Coot to name but a few.
This is not to mention all the neotroical migrating species that use the riparian corridor to move through a dangerous urban habitat.  There is a continuous corridor of riparian habitat for these migrants, except for the sterile cement sewer through Pocatello.  Now the city wants to expand this sterile zone.  We have already lost over 90% of our riparian habitat in the West from reservoirs and irrigation systems, and we should not take any further loss lightly.  I urge all concerned citizens to attend the public meeting on Aug. 31st from 5:30 till 7:30pm at the City Council Chambers, 911 N. 7th Ave.  If you can’t make it, you can call 234-6212 or 234-6163 to register your concerns.
. . . Chuck

Back in the 1960s, Pocatello suffered two extraordinary floods on the Portneuf River, which runs through the middle of town. Before long Pocatello interests had cooked up a scheme with the ever willing Army Corps of Engineers. The mentality of that era was to put the river in concrete box through the most developed part of town and build a levee for several miles to the north and south of the box.

I wasn’t around in the 1960s, but when I moved to town, the Portneuf was an ugly, creepy channel, with poor public access (but who wanted it anyway?) with trash, a little brush, and noxious weeds growing on the levee, which ran through semi-agricultural areas.

Nature heals. As time went by the levee brush grew into trees of many species. The water became shaded and many kinds of birds returned (maybe someone could provide a list?).

Embarrassed by the condition of the river through town, city leaders looked with envy at places like Boise and Idaho Falls that had not ruined their local river, but had made a parkway along it. Little could be done about the concrete box (it was useful for drowning feral cats!), but the city tried. Parks were built along part of it. The Portneuf Greenway Foundation, however, did much more for the levee with an ambitious trail plan with now includes side trails leading up into the mountains. Many hundreds of of people use it daily.

The levee itself is neglected and certainly needs some work if it is to provide flood control, but the Corps, in a fashion so typical of their history, apparently wants to cut all “trees” with a circumference greater than 2 1/2 inches! To me that means pretty much all the woody vegetation. So it will be back to the 1970s or 60s if they get their way.

Of course, the word is out that we need the flood control. If the levee is not recertified maybe 500 people will have to buy flood insurance. Flood insurance is going to be the big argument.

Regarding flood insurance, consider this.

1. The floods of the 1960s are very unlikely to happen again. Acts of God they were not. They were what is to be expected when the upstream watershed is cultivated on very steep erodible slopes, left bare soil, or planted in winter wheat during the winter there is a big rainstorm on top of deep melting snow. Since that time, most of these fields have been taken out of production by the Conservation Reserve Project (CRP). The slopes no longer bleed thousands of tons of mud with every storm.

2. The levees have never provided much protection. The levees were not built to withstand floods like the 1960s. They only provide minor flood control now and in the past. Although they were certified so that houses could be built next to the river and people don’t have to buy flo0d insurance to get a mortgage, the levees do not really protect these houses from much.  If the residents knew this, they would probably be buying flood insurance now.

Someone might say, “fine, you live somewhere that you don’t have to worry about the river!” Not so! We bought an existing house right on the river. We own right to the Portneuf’s water line.

Portneuf at water line. Between the levees
The Portneuf River at waterline between the levees. The river is full (irrigation water diverted is returned in autumn).
The top of the levees, not in sight, are about ten feet above the waterline. Photo Ralph Maughan

We also bought flood insurance. We didn’t worry much about the levee, but after two years it was pretty clear there was a significant flood danger, but not from the Portneuf.  The City had allowed development on the deltas of all the small tributaries of the Portneuf that run off of Kinport Peak just to the west. It became obvious to us after several hard rain storms and one winter when a tributary froze over that we didn’t live on a five hundred year flood plain or even a fifty year flood plain. We lived on one that flooded almost every year. We shelled out $300 for flood insurance. Now we don’t worry when the street in front of our house turns into a river nearly every cloudburst. I’m sorry for our neighbors, maybe they have purchased flood insurance too.

So, reject the Army Corps plans meant for decades ago.  They have never provided much flood control with their levees, and it will be the same after they are done turning them back into a muddy, alternatively dusty and weedy messes.  You are going to lose more property value if they cut the trees than any flood insurance will cost you.

Oh, and think about the increased railroad noise with no buffering vegetation!

The City is holding a meeting August 31 at 5:30 PM to 7:30 PM in the City Council Chambers. There will be a presentation as to what the City has learned about the Corps plans, and the public will be able to speak.

Story. Rule surprises Greenway Board. Idaho State Journal.

24 Responses to “Pocatello. Don’t let the Army Corps ruin the Portneuf River again!”

  1. Nathan Says:

    Ill be there.

  2. catbestland Says:


    Are those pale green trees in the 2nd picture Russian Olives? If they are that is all you will see in a few years. Yet another infestation we can blame on the cattle industry.

  3. Ralph Maughan Says:

    Yes, they are Russian Olives, but I haven’t noticed them crowding other trees out (except where the levee his been disturbed!).

  4. catbestland Says:

    Give `em a few years. When I first moved to Western Colorado about 20 yrs ago they were just getting started. Thats just about all you see now in many spots along the Uncompahgre river.

  5. Serephin Says:

    Ralph —

    As I was told yesterday, the Corps refuses to negotiate, as they have refused to negotiate with cities much larger than ours (think Seattle). Also, it’s not the Corps physically removing the trees; the City of Pocatello must pay for it.

    FEMA has already de-certified the levees, and won’t re-certify until the trees in the specified sections are removed. One other repercussion — the planned overpass to be built at Cheyenne will double in cost unless the levees are re-certified.

    I hate to see the trees go, but from what I heard yesterday, the City feels it has no other choice. They do plan on coming up with some type of reclamation project to try to eventually replace greenery along the Portneuf in a manner that won’t twist the Corps panties in a knot.

  6. Larry Says:

    What is the rationale in blaming Russian Olive infestations on the cattle industry?

  7. Ralph Maughan Says:

    In my view if the overpass at Cheyenne isn’t built, all the better.

  8. Ralph Maughan Says:


    I think in this case Larry asks a good question. The area isn’t grazed by cattle. The numerous birds eat the seeds and spread them around. They also float down the river, probably some from many miles upstream.

  9. smalltownID Says:

    When I was living right at the mouth of City creek they cut down all the trees and willows in the flood plain for a 1/4 mile before the concrete channel. The willows came back quickly but I didn’t see any sense in it other than to make people feel more safe running on the green belt.

  10. catbestland Says:

    From My experience with the awful stuff while speaking with extenstion service agents is that it was introduced as a windbreak for midwestern farmers who planted them around alfalfa fields. The seeds fell into the harvested alfalfa and was distributed through feeding of this alfalfa plus it became commonplace in the alfalfa seed as well. When the alfalfa is planted the Russion Olive seeds washes into the streams and rivers via irrigation. And this is where you see most of the infestation has developed-in fields where alfalfa is harvested. We had a heck of a time trying to get rid of it here. Also I was told that much of the seed came in imported alfalfa seed. So I guess blaming it solely on cattle is a mistatement. I should have more correctly said the livestock industry. I’m sure birds do their share of distributing seed as well. It a nasty thorny shrub tree that can injure the eyes of horses and wildlife alike.

    It has choked out almost all of the natural willows and Cottonwoods along the rivers in many parts of the Grand Valley. Cutting it down only seems to encourage it to come back more prolifically.

  11. Ralph Maughan Says:

    The entire thrust of community action on the Portneuf River in recent years has been to make it a community asset. How much money have people and businesses donated? A lot.

  12. Larry Thorngren Says:

    Much of Pocatello’s flood problem was self inflicted. I attended ISU back in the 60s. I worked a short time for a small greenhouse/nursery business on the south end of town, right on the river. Any extra dirt, dead plants(Including the containers), leaves, and trash from the nursery, the owner had me dump along the edge of river. Some of this refuse slid into the river, narrowing the channel. I saw other property owners in the same area, dumping refuse out of their yards along the river as well. The river bank was used as a convenient dump.

  13. Tom Page Says:

    Aside from being a nasty plant to work with, thanks to the thorns, we never had much trouble getting rid of Russian Olive. Compared to the godawful tammies, it was small potatoes.

  14. Ralph Maughan Says:


    Downriver from me they recently put in some townhouses. During construction, I noticed the levee there was clearly lower than in other places. The developer did not lower it further. I just noticed because the clearing gave me a clear view of the profile.

    The Corps needs to go along the levee and look for anomalies such as you described and I noticed.

  15. Ralph Maughan Says:

    This morning I was looking at a part of the levee that had been disturbed and weeds growing back.

    I guess my prediction that it would be become covered with Scotch Thistle was optimistic. It’s going to be covered with puncturevine! Could anything be worse?

  16. smalltownID Says:

    Put it this way. I have seen puncture vine cause mental breakdowns. He was not joking when he said “to inflict and torment man.”

  17. catbestland Says:

    Well actually puncturevine can be used as a natural alternative to drugs like viagra to treat e.d. Of course this could be the cause of the mental breakdowns.

    Check it out; http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/10755530360623374?journalCode=acm

  18. MyraMains Says:

    A big portion of the trees, as I have seen, are invasive species. The Russian Olive that has been allegedly introduced by those scummy cattle ranchers, and I don’t know the proper name for the others. The only term I have heard them called is Piss Elm. If they are campaigning to remove the piss elm, go get em! If they are also going to rebuild the levee that water can more effectively travel the river, go get em boys. I have noticed that the old river channel travels right through the Golf Course (riverside) and also travels by the aquifer scar. As you travel along the interstate you can see the old channel that meanders like they taught in school. When the flood control was done, and the river straightened, taking the meanders out of it, that was when they screwed up the river. There is the old river channel almost halfway between Fort Hall Mine road and the Inkom cement plant. If those areas of river were allowed to meander like a stream should, silt would be able to be deposited in the eddies, and the river would work naturally as it is supposed to. The trees, that is just landscaping. If the river is to be fixed, put it back into its old channel, the one that was rerouted about 50 years ago.

  19. Ralph Maughan Says:

    Please attend this meeting tonight. I get more angry by the minute at what these rotten bastards want to do!

  20. kt Says:

    Ralph: What happened at the meeting?

  21. Ralph Maughan Says:

    There was a huge turnout. Almost everyone there seemed to be opposed to the Army Corps of Engineers Plans, which ironically would have to be paid for and carried out by the City at very high monetary cost.

    The mayor vowed opposition to the Corps. He said he was encouraged by the show of support. Most of the meeting was devoted to citizens and city department folks going back and forth on ideas of what to do.

    It was very encouraging from a few weeks ago, but the fight on this will be long and hard. The Corps has a one-size-fits-all template. They don’t recognize that semi-arid country rivers are not like Eastern or Southern U.S. rivers.

    The only thing the Corps has going for it locally is that FEMA will probably require about 500 structures to acquire flood insurance (assuming they have a mortgage) when the levee is permanently decertified. This will be pricey for folks who live on what will officially become a flood plain.

    It became clear in the meeting that the Corps wants the City of prepare for a very unlikely (120 year) flood with the levee.

    The local EPA person was also helpful by reminding that the federal government has opposite goals for the Portneuf — improved water temperature, oxygen content, and turbidity, all of which would be harmed by the Corps’ plans.

  22. kt Says:

    Is any portion of the Portneuf watershed grazed? If so, how about removing a major source of disturbance that makes watersheds more prone to violent runoff events?

    Well, after the fire in the Boise foothills 6 (?) years ago, big ugly terraces expensive terraces were built. Because there had been a flood back in the 60s due to extreme overgrazing.

    Or building a series of ponds for runoff flow to go into during extreme events?

  23. Ralph Maughan Says:


    There are many bad practices upstream on the Portneuf. Grazing, mostly on private land, is one of them, the others are dryland farming on steep slopes, irrigation diversion and operations by the Marsh Creek Canal Company, and the UP railroad which diverted the river out of its channel in the first place at Pocatello and upstream in places.

    The Portneuf isn’t as bad as it once was and Mayor Chase and others led the way to purchase upstream water to keep it from getting so low in Pocatello in the summer. The mayor said he hoped there might be a big positive announcement on a large water purchase at the end of the week.

    Unfortunately Butch Otter is busy screwing up the river right now between McCammon to Lava Hot Springs with his widening of US Highway 30.

  24. Ralph Maughan Says:

    Here is the Idaho State Journal’s story on the meeting last night.

    Mayor hopes trees can be saved. By Jimmy Hancock.

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