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Water In The Valley—It Used To Bring Out The Big Guns
Friday, July 15, 2016


Idaho was still a territory when the first lawsuit over water rights was filed in the Wood River Valley.

Pioneer residents began registering water rights with the county in 1880, riding horseback for days from Hailey to Rocky Bar which then was the county seat.

No one monitored whether there was enough water to support the claims then and so very quickly the claims exceeded supply, said John Lundin, who has researched the history of water in the Wood River Valley.

“They started registering water rights in 1880, and the first litigation took place in 1983—seven years before Idaho became a state,” he said. “Today we’re still dealing with water rights with the Snake River Adjudication, which began in 1987.”

Lundin will give a free slide presentation on “Earl Water Issues and Conflicts in the Wood River Valley” at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, July 16, at Ketchum’s Community Library.

His talk is a prelude to the Smithsonian “Wateerways” exhibit that is going up at the Sun Valley Museum of History in Ketchum’s Forest Service Park at First and Washington streets.

The exhibition will open on Tuesday, July 19, with volunteers trained to lead visitors through the exhibit. The exhibition will also be open during the Gallery Walk and the library’s second annual Lit Crawl in early August.

“Water is a topic of intense interest globally. And it’s a topic we need to familiarize ourselves with locally, as well,” said Library Director Jenny Emery Davidson.

John Lundin’s own family was very familiar with early efforts to harness water in Bellevue. His great-grandparents moved to Bellevue in 1881 where they built the International Hotel. His great grandfather founded the Bellevue Water Company, building wooden pipes to replace the ditches that first carried water to town.

Early on, Bellevue claimed 300 inches of water rights from nearby Seamand’s Creek for 80 plats. The city built a well smack dab in the middle of Main Street for townspeople to draw water.

Others, including the Wood River Smelter near Lookout Mountain began making claims, as well, and in 1884 the City of Bellevue found itself involved in a battle for water rights in Seamand’s Creek.

In 1909, with the water system shut down for repairs, the International Hotel burned to the ground. Two men burned to death in another hotel.

Lundin’s relative Neil Campbell, who was doing the repairs to the water system, rode out to the canyon to turn on the water but it was too late. Even his blacksmith shop burned to the ground.

Homesteaders had to provide water for their land within three years of claiming 640 acres under the Desert Land Act of 1877, said Lundin.

And the Reclamation Act of 1902 brought federal money for projects like Magic Dam, which created the reservoir south of Bellevue.

Horace C. Lewis, who ran Ketchum’s ore wagons, claimed 200 inches from Trail Creek for Ketchum in 1883 and more from Warm Springs Creek in 1888 and 1889.

Hailey claimed 500 inches of water from Indian Creek and dug the Big Ditch near the Starweather neighborhood north of Hailey in 1883, which remains in use today.

Robert Strahorn, who did a lot of publicity for Union Pacific Railroad, found himself facing down an angry mob armed with guns who feared he would interfere with their water rights over the ditch construction.

Additional canals were built in the Delta View neighborhood and near Bellevue to supply water for the Chinese, who grew turnips, rutabagas, corn, cabbage, lettuce, carrots and onions for early settlers.

“My relative Neil Campbell even dug a five-mile long canal with his sons for his family in the Little Wood River Reservoir area. It was quite the feat when you think about it,” said Lundin. “Today it’s part of John Peavey’s Flat Top Sheep Ranch.”

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