Local column: City & irrigation district connecting our community

Cyclists and pedestrians of Idaho Falls may now be getting their long-awaited network of paved walking and biking paths after an agreement between the city council and the Idaho Irrigation Distirct, writes Jeffrey Forbes.

Residents of Idaho Falls have something new to celebrate this holiday season. In early December, the city inked an agreement with the Idaho Irrigation District which paves the way toward installing paved walking and biking paths along some of the irrigation canals that run through our community. But first a bit of history.

Everyone knows we have an extensive network of irrigation canals, some over 100 years old. In fact, southeast Idaho owes much of its prosperity to nature’s abundant water supply, and the irrigation of surrounding farmlands made possible by these canals.

Now let’s turn to the subject of pathways. Public opinions surveys conducted over the years found a large majority of residents would like to see the city to construct a network of connected walking paths and bikeways to allow people to get where they need to go, safely, without having to drive. As our leaders have recognized, moving toward a more walkable, bikeable community can create economic development opportunities. Canal banks potentially provide logical routes for pathways, with the advantage that fewer roads cross the canals, compared with our city streets with their frequent intersections.

The concept of constructing multi-use pathways along canal banks has been kicked around for decades. At least as far back as the 2000 Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, proposed routes for multi-use pathways were shown paralleling some of the canals. But these canals are mostly on private property, and irrigation district board members have been understandably unwilling to accept the increased legal liability which could accrue from public use of canal banks. Concerns have also been raised about trash and litter, and canal maintenance activities, which could prove incompatible with public pathways.

The impasse persisted until the city began negotiations with the Idaho Irrigation District nearly four years ago. Attorneys for both institutions worked side by side to forge an agreement that addressed the legal and financial concerns. As a result, the Canal Pathways Master Agreement was unanimously adopted in November by both the Idaho Falls City Council and the Idaho Irrigation District. As written, the agreement requires that the city submit pathway requests for specific projects to the irrigation district for review and approval. The city also agrees to cover the costs for maintenance of canal banks within city limits, and the agreement absolves the irrigation district of legal liability.

As with any proposed change, there will no doubt be naysayers, including those who say that pathways along canal banks would be too dangerous. But more dangerous than our River Walk pathways along the Snake River? Or the pathways that already exist along irrigation canals elsewhere? I think not. In fact, pathways will increase accessibility and safety for pedestrians and cyclists because potential conflicts with motorists will be reduced.

The master agreement provides the legal framework to proceed, but moving forward depends on securing the necessary funding. The city recently submitted a grant application to the Idaho Transportation Department for Phase 1 of the proposed Idaho Canal Trail. The results of ITD’s selection process will be announced come springtime.

This landmark agreement provides a blueprint for installing paved pathways along canal banks, and will provide lasting benefits for many years to come. The agreement isn’t just about pathways. It’s fair to say that relations between the irrigation districts and the city have sometimes been strained. The districts have understandably been concerned about urban growth, and what these changes might mean for their ability to continue to provide water to members. For the Idaho Irrigation District at least, this new agreement helps put those concerns to rest by creating a basis for a constructive, mutually beneficial working relationship going forward. That’s something to cheer about.

Forbes is a groundwater hydrogeologist who serves on the Idaho Falls Parks and Recreation Commission. He is a member of Idaho Falls Community Pathways, a non-profit that promotes people-powered transportation in the Idaho Falls area.