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Gold to Agriculture: History of the Arrowrock Dam

Posted by Hughes Group Blog Team on Friday, February 12th, 2016 at 7:10pm.

 

The valley along the Boise River is incredibly fertile, and according to the National Park Service, is “considered one of the best farming regions in the American West.” Today, that is very true. An incredible thirty percent of the potatoes in the United States come from Idaho, and Idaho produces over half of that nation’s Austrian winter peas. Idaho is famous for its potatoes, and it’s quite apparent that agriculture is huge part of the economy and lifestyle here in Idaho.

The Promise of Gold

However, the prospect of some of the best farming land in the West wasn’t what drew early settlers and pioneers to Idaho. They were after gold. The discovery of gold around the Boise River headwaters in 1862 drew a massive amount of people to Southwest Idaho. The small town of Idaho City had a boom in its population. Today, it’s home to less than 500 people, but during the gold rush the population swelled to almost 50,000.

The gold rush created a different economic opportunity in the area. The miners needed supplies and food, and agriculture began to take off in the valley. The push to get rich quick on gold kick started the booming agricultural business in Idaho, and soon farmland covered much of the land around the river.

The Need for Irrigation

Of course, crops all have one thing in common. They need water. Even though the Boise River created fertile farmland, the region was (and still is) dry. With an average annual precipitation of around 12 inches, there was a huge need for irrigation. Of course, diverting the river for irrigation required water rights, and the first rights were granted in 1864. In a matter of years, farming boomed and covered almost of the bottomlands near the Boise River.

The need for more irrigation continued to grow, however, and in the 1880s, a man from Connecticut had a plan. With the capital needed, he sought to build a canal that would stretch from the Boise River to the Snake River. It was a massive project. The canal would span 75 miles, but it would allow for the much needed irrigation. As a bonus, it would also provide more water for the miners.

The New York Canal, as it was to be called, was mired in problems, though. The cost of building the canal was greater than expected, and progress was slow. After 16 years, only 10 miles had been finished. There was a need for the canal, however, and so different farming groups took over the canal. There was some success, and in 1900 enough of the canal had been finished to provide irrigation for over 100,000 acres.

The Arrowrock Dam

Another problem remained. Irrigation was still dependent on flood flow. There were no systems in place to reserve water for the dry seasons. In 1902, the Federal Government stepped into the scene, through the newly created Bureau of Reclamation (at the time, it was called the U.S. Reclamation Service). This allowed the government to build dams, reservoirs, and canals for the purpose of irrigation. A part of this project was the Arrowrock Dam.

Work began on the dam in 1912, and it was completed only three years later in 1915. Several records were broken for the amount of concrete poured. Over the span of three months, workers on the Arrowrock Dam broke the world record and their own records. When the dam was finished, it was the tallest in the world at 348 feet.

The Arrowrock Dam project was successful. Since it’s initial creation, it has grown and expanded, but it added hundreds of miles of canals, storage dams, and pumping stations. Now, almost 400,000 acres of farmland are supplied by the project, with the aid of the Arrowrock Dam. It provides irrigation to Southwest Idaho and Eastern Oregon.

The Foothold of Agriculture

Idaho is a strong agricultural state, and produces a large percent of grown foods in the United States. The Arrowrock Dam and the irrigation project have helped secure Idaho’s foothold in agriculture. Gold may have been the original draw for many early settlers of Idaho, but agriculture quickly took over.

Today, you’ll find evidence of agriculture everywhere, proving that Idaho has a strong agricultural economy. The Arrowrock Dam is a testament to the tenacity and dedication of early Idahoans, and it shows the spirit of the people here. Idahoans don’t shy away from hard work, and they love working the land. The outdoors are important, and a lot of work has been done to ensure that Idaho remains a strong state, especially in the agricultural world.

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