Natural disasters and the destruction that follows in their wake have always been headline news items. Overlooked for lack of a sensational headline, however, were the herculean effort and personal sacrifices of the residents of two small communities who worked together to avoid a natural disaster—a flood that could have devastated a large farming area of south-central Idaho. Basing her work on meticulous grass-roots research, Kathleen Hedberg tells the story of these rural communities summoning all their resources to avert a tragedy.
In the spring of 1984, the Lower Goose Creek Reservoir threatened to overflow. A flood was inevitable. Thousands of acres of farmland and at least two towns, Oakley and Burley, Idaho, would be inundated. Local officials devised a plan to divert the water from the dam by widening and extending an existing canal nineteen miles and by digging twenty-four miles of new canal in three days through existing farmland to divert the floodwater to Murtaugh Lake and the Snake River. For nearly twenty days, a torrent of water several feet deep and up to seventy feet wide rushed through the Snake River canal, while volunteers sandbagged and patrolled the banks, sometimes twenty-four hours a day.
Hedberg chronicles the painful decision of the farmers along the canal routes to sacrifice crops and land to save their neighbors from the flood. She tells a story of cooperative spirit as churches, civic organizations, and individuals worked together for the community good. Because the area is predominantly Mormon (Oakley, 86 percent; Burley, 50 percent), the efficient organization of the LDS Church played a major role in organizing the massive effort to divert the floodwaters.
One volunteer reported, “Off to the side we could see the water flowing to Murtaugh Lake. In front of us was the canal to the Snake River. It hit me for the first time—the vastness of what had been done. ‘We did it,’ I remember thinking. ‘We built those canals and saved our valley’” (199). Terry Bingham, Cassia County Deputy Sheriff and a volunteer civil defense director, commented, “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Normally in my job as Deputy Sheriff I see the dark side of people. That project gave me a confirmation of the positive side of the human spirit that is enough to last a lifetime” (276).
Kathleen Hedberg’s book is a splendid tribute, worthy of that spirit.