After months of delays, Army Corps of Engineers officials said they will push forward with plans to dig up several gravel bars obstructing part of the Snake River near Blackfoot, even though it could mean working when the river is at peak flow.
"The plan is to do the work, no matter what the flows," said Nola Conway, a spokeswoman for the Corps' regional office in Walla Walla, Wash.The decision is the latest in a series of flip-flops and delays that have turned a relatively simple gravel-removal project into a drawn-out effort to reduce flooding risks. Some critics say the project is pointless.
"We've always had some question as to whether the project was really necessary as relates to flood control," said Lynn Van Every, regional water quality manager for the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality's office in Pocatello.
Increased flood protection has been the main reason for the project. Last year's floodwaters created the gravel bars that blocked off part of the river near Blackfoot, raising fears of flooding even in a year when forecasts predict an average spring runoff.
The project was originally slated to begin this January, when the river was at its lowest and the gravel bars were largely dry, said Conway. But delays in the environmental study required for the federal project have pushed the tentative starting date well into the spring. She could not say when work will begin.
Just hours before announcing the plan to continue work, Conway said the corps would only do the work when it could avoid digging into gravel below the water level. That raised questions about whether the project would be postponed until this fall. The corps changed its position shortly after meeting with Bingham County Commissioners Thursday, Conway said.
The urgency for the $150,000 project now has as much to do with funding as flooding, say some involved in the project.
On the line is a $50,000 grant from the state Department of Commerce to Bingham County, earmarked for emergency repairs to fend off immediate flooding threats. The corps would pay for the rest.
If the project had been postponed until after the spring, the danger might have faded enough for the county to lose the emergency funding, Bingham County Commissioner Wayne Brower said.
"I think the scenario was if we went through the spring and there wasn't any flooding, then the imminent threat of flooding would have gone away," he said.