North Fork of the Boise River threatened by Twin Springs Dam proposal

By Greg Stahl, IRU

The North Fork of the Boise River has the exciting combination of great whitewater in an outstanding wilderness setting. (photo by Greg Stahl)

The sky is a particularly piercing shade of blue, the water clear and cold. I’m near the bottom of a mile-long section of challenging whitewater on the North Fork of the Boise River, where the canyon is free of the scars of roads or trails.

The riverbed is littered with granite boulders, and gray granite walls studded with ponderosa pine climb 500 feet or more toward the sky. While I linger on a streamside boulder waiting for my kayaking companions to pass I wonder what this place would be like with the river stilled, what it would feel like if the big dam downstream at Twin Springs on the Middle Fork of the Boise River were to be built.

There’s no doubt this wild sanctuary would be forever altered, the river’s roar ceased, streamside pines and willows drown, the lower reaches of these impressive canyon walls inundated.

I look up to see my companions splashing through big lateral waves, a whitewater blur that curves upstream as far as I can see, and I’m reminded how happy I am to have a hobby that affords travel to such remote and beautiful places.

Twin Springs Dam

Twin Springs Dam site on the Middle Fork of the Boise River would flood 8 miles of the Middle Fork of the Boise and 4 miles of the North Fork. (map produced using Google Earth)

Construction of Twin Springs Dam might seem unlikely in a day an age of increasing consciousness about the negative environmental impacts of dams. Dams in this era of increasing enlightenment are being taken down, not built.

The actual construction cost of dams is exorbitant—and, depending on the project, often borne by taxpayers—but they inflict decades of additional social, environmental and maintenance costs. While some produce needed power and store water, they also fill with silt, permanently alter the landscape and impede or stop fish migration. Where once the sounds of a clear, cold river reverberated among canyon walls, motorboat engines might echo from one granite rampart to another.

And the fact is, the Boise River system is well dammed already. The lower reaches of the Middle Fork of the Boise River have been stilled for decades, Lucky Peak and Arrowrock dams plugging Mother Nature’s sensibilities for more than 30 miles above the Gem State’s capital city. There’s a dam on the South Fork of the Boise, too. These dams provide water for irrigation and assist in flood control. They quench the thirst of the urban population, green the desert and help keep lights on at night. Some environmentalists concede the importance of some dams as important staples in a western economy, but all dams are not created equal, and construction of more dams is not the answer. Though over and again we try, we can’t build our way out of problems.

But additional dams are being studied anyway, and on Friday, May 29, the Idaho Water Resource Board signed a contract with the Army Corps of Engineers to spend $450,000 each to further study the feasibility of several projects, including Twin Springs Dam, in the Boise River basin.

Twin Springs Dam site on the Middle Fork of the Boise River would flood 8 miles of the Middle Fork of the Boise and 4 miles of the North Fork. (map produced using Google Earth)

A million dollars might not seem like much in the grand scheme of government spending, but it certainly seems extravagant right now. And it’s being spent to study construction of a project in a river basin where per-capita water use downstream in the city of Boise is still among the highest in the country.

How far, I wonder, would that million dollars go toward implementing a campaign to encourage the residents of Boise to curb water use from 300 gallons per day to something more sustainable like, say, Seattle’s much more modest 90 gallons per day?

Sustainability is about conservation, not construction, and the longer it takes us to figure this out the more special places will suffer, places like, potentially, the North Fork of the Boise River.

Great Whitewater

High water on the North Fork of the Boise River in 2005. (photo by Greg Stahl)

The lower canyon on the North Fork of the Boise is more than a secluded wild cathedral. It’s a top-notch recreational river with one of the best class IV whitewater runs in Idaho. It’s close to Boise, but the shuttle from the take-out to the put-in climbs over the top of a mountain on a poor dirt road. This is truck country, where even four-by-four cars would struggle.

The 10-miles of whitewater begin near Barber Flat, and within a mile or two of scenic, easy floating the road vanishes. A few meanders later, canyon walls close in, and a big gray granite wall slants over the river’s northwest bank. This is where things get interesting.

The river begins to drop at close to 200 feet per mile, and the mile-long rapid is a blur of crashing waves and holes. It’s manageable whitewater for solid class IV boaters, but the wilderness setting and length of the rapid raise the stakes.

Several steep rapids follow in the miles following this exhilarating initiation to the North Fork of the Boise, but they ease in difficulty as the river descends. The lower canyon changes character, with sagebrush hills studded with the gold blooms of arrowleaf balsamroot sloping to the water’s edge.

“What an incredible class IV run,” I say to Chris, who traveled here from Hailey, Idaho, today. “It’s got a really good combination of challenging whitewater followed by ego-boosting class II and III. And it’s in a wilderness setting. This is what boating is about.”

The North Fork

The North Fork of the Boise River’s headwaters are in the fabled 10,000-foot peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains, which also serve as the headwaters for the Salmon River, Middle Fork of the Salmon River and South Fork of the Payette River. The Sawtooth Wilderness Area, designated by Congress in 1972, includes some of the most spectacular rugged country in a state renowned for its remote, rugged character.

The North Fork Boise flows west out of the Sawtooths into some of the most remote parts of the lower 48 United States. Dirt roads service this area, but it’s not easily accessible, and it’s not accessible at all from the Sawtooth Valley, to the east, by car.

Near the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Boise is the diminutive hamlet of Atlanta, a town of 40. Established in 1863 as a gold mining camp, Atlanta was named after the Civil War battle of Atlanta.

Twin Springs Dam Site

The proposed Twin Springs Dam would be built at this location on the Middle Fork of the Boise River. The dam would flood roughly 8 miles of the Middle Fork of the Boise and 4 miles of the North Fork. (photo by Greg Stahl)

The proposed Twin Springs Dam would be built at this location on the Middle Fork of the Boise River. The dam would flood roughly 8 miles of the Middle Fork of the Boise and 4 miles of the North Fork. (photo by Greg Stahl)

If a 470-foot-tall dam were to be built at Twin Springs it would inundate about 8 miles of the Middle Fork of the Boise River, 4 miles of the North Fork and more than a mile of a tributary called Sheep Creek.

The dam site, about a mile upstream of Twin Springs Resort, is at a place where granite outcroppings creep close to the Middle Fork and would add to a dam’s structural integrity. The reservoir’s backwaters would flood three U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, 13 miles of bull trout habitat and portions of the Middle and North Forks that have been designated by the state of Idaho as State Protected Rivers, a designation that would need to be removed in order to build the dam.

Stunning Scenery

The final mellow miles of the North Fork include gentle meanders as the river approaches its confluence with the Middle Fork and the Troutdale Campground, our take-out.

We pass a big beaver that sits on a rock chewing on an aspen stem. A mule deer scampers up a slope when it detects our intrusion.

It is truly stunning country and a trip worth doing more than once. This is my second, in fact, and it’s a run to which I know I’ll return. The whitewater is exciting, but the wild setting is second-to-none, an experience that can’t be reproduced.