Bluff Irrigation

 Photo across a  field and Payette River to the “bluffs,” the most identifying feature of

Payette Valley.  These particular bluffs lie alongside Birding Island.  The left most portion of bluff marks the beginning of the Payette irrigation canal.  This canal is fed via a side channel of river around Birding Island, with a small 8-10′ dam which diverts that branch flow into the canal.

Because the main flow of the Payette has been dammed by Black Canyon Dam since the 20s, the valley floor has had its streams flowing in the same place and this allows soil to be generated by alluvium and wind born dust, ending in more and more soil formation. Prior to the dam’s construction, the river ran right next to the bluffs–where the Payette canal gets its water.  It is vastly preferential to the valley for the river to be where it is today, rather than its earlier position.  It is simple today to look at the lower Payette River valley, including the Emmett area as the river wandered over the millenia back and forth frequently altering its course.

This photo is of a neighbor of Harold Collinsworth and indicates how we generally irrigated up through the 40s.  “Openings” were cut into the ditch corresponding to about eight furrows. Then a “header” ditch distributed that to each row of that opening.  This was laborious especially when the first irrigation was done because the dirt was easily eroded by the water.  Subsequent irrigations the dirt had “settled” and became firmer and less erodible.  But through each irrigation it took considerable skill and constant monitoring to try to get all the furrows to end up evenly and soaking enough.  Many times, during our busiest periods, I found myself out in our fields by moonlight doing this.  Each irrigation takes a “head” of water sufficient for that field.  Each of other fields also took a “head.”  You could only manage so many at a time.

As time passed, the shear cost of labor mandated different means of irrigation.  Many farmers cemented their ditchs to a precise grade allowing tube irrigation. Others put all t heir ditches into cement pipes raising it via concrete pipe “stands” to field level where a variety of means distributes water to each furrow.  Labor is key to agriculture today.

 047 1 1964 tube irrig

This field is being irrigated via aluminum tubes siphoning water each into individual furrow.  This, while a technique almost as old as mankind’s use of water irrigation, is modern to Idaho only coming into use in latter 60s.  Before that each ditch was cut with a shovel with “openings” that let out enough water for about 8 furrows. Then another was cut for the next 8, and on across the field.  These tubings, in practice, become usable only when the ditch is cemented with a ditch leveled with precision to back up and impound the water to a certain amount.  Irrigation has innumerable variations of just how it is done locally.

Eventually such irrigation with furrows will give way to drip or sprinkler irrigation as water becomes rationed as a resource with advent of increasing population. And, because labor will become too expensive to use in this manner.

Water Wheel in New Plymouth

Just east of New Plymouth on Nobel Ditch (1993).  Water wheels are an endangered species and may now be all gone. Up thru the 40s many farmers along the north side of Noble Ditch used these wheels to 047 a 1942 npwaterwheel“raise” the canal water up to flow onto the land directly next to the canal which usually was about 5′ higher than the canal water. These wheels used the flow of canal water to turn them.  Muddy canal water is much heavier than clear water – and that weight gives flowing water a proportionately greater “push.”

Note the flow of water out the end.  This wheel’s water lift is being “wasted” back into the canal at the moment, instead of out into the field.  This is in place of an “on off” switch, which would be impractical.

Wheels could be used 24/7 with no other power input.  Very economical. They all had a “boom,” a telephone pole sized pole that was angled across the upstream in order to angle – push any trash to the mill stream built into the side of the wheel allowing water and trash to bypass the wheel.

If trash were to go directly under the wheel then it could wedge under and stop the wheel.  The “mill race” structure was also used as a means to bypass the wheel should it be damaged and taken out of service, or it could be boarded up preventing water from going thru it, thus backing up water in the canal upstream and putting even more pressure on the wheel lifting even more water per cycle.

These wheels, of course, require annual maintenance and some replacement.  They were ubiquitous up and down the canal (most were on the Noble Ditch, but some also on Farmers Canal) and a loved feature of the countryside.  As a practice, they have been replaced today with “weirs,” or pumps.  Weirs are a concreted structure across the canal, narrowing the channel, with slots for boards which, if placed into the flow, will back the water up in the canal to raise its level. All in order to cause the water let out via “headgates” into laterals, to have more “head” (higher level of water in the ditch.)  This simply means the level of water is raised so that gravity will cause more water to flow to fields downstream. Sometimes this same method is used to overcome the resistance in the lateral caused by weed growth choking the flow. When finally the resistance to flow overcomes the farmer’s resistance to cleaning the weeds out of his ditch, then the ditch gets the weeds cleaned out!

This is a weir–just boards inserted into a  concreted structure–backing up the water, in order to raise the height of the headgate seen jut above the weir.  This weir is just across the canal from Joel Miesback farm.  I’m standing on my dad’s old place.

Using weirs simply cannot raise the canal level the 5-6′ needed for the farms serviced by the old wheels, so when a wheel goes, then the only alternative is a pump.

Maintenance is lifting the wheel (when water is out is easiest) replacing the large bearing surfaces that bear the weight while turning – they are very heavy when wet.  Many tons of pressure is on the wheel. Then packing the bearing box with heavy grease.  And, the boards making up the flow plates rot, get breaks, etc., and may need replacing.  The long telephone pole to side track debris also must be replaced.  The mill race cement embankments around the wheel create a vortex just below/behind the wheels – that greatly erodes the canal banks and creates danger liabilities – and makes big holes – which needs maintenance yearly as well.

To New Plymouth, the Water Wheels are reflective of the very soul of the city – the reason for its existence.

New Plymouth would not exist today, tomorrow, or in the future without the canals.  It would just be desert.  The very lifeblood that earns a living for everyone in town eventually comes down to the canals.  The wheels are simply the heroic means of the time to harness the largesse of water brought to town.  We celebrate and revere the pioneers and their heroic means (the covered wagons).  We no longer need Conestoga and wagon trains to get from here to there, but their earlier importance is not lessened by that fact.  We revere the Plymouth Pilgrims – even naming our town after them.  And, our very logo the Pilgrims ship was merely their own heroic means to do what they did.  The water wheels are equally as symbolic to our town, our people, our past and our future as any of those earlier means and symbols.  Our children need symbols of their roots. With the wheels they have those symbols.  Aren’t those wheels really our mascots?  Wouldn’t the Pilgrims’ descendents love to have the ship they came over on sitting on display as such a heroic symbol of their beginnings?  Sure they would– but the opportunity is long gone.  But, we have the opportunity of paying tribute to our beginnings, our symbols, and the heroic beginnings of little old New Plymouth, not granted to very many peoples.  And, they can continue to remind our children of our beginnings for as long as we want them to.


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