The recent warming after this February’s RECORD BREAKING snowfall has really got the juices flowing! Actually the water flowing. At the time I am writing this, yesterday I went down to highway 21 and took a ‘then and now‘ picture. Downstairs in the museum we have this really cool picture of a car driving on a road, and on the passenger side there is a rock bluff, and off it is a torrential deluge of water. And the car is just driving along like no big deal! The photo was taken in 1957, 60 years ago around the same time of year, so I took one of the same spot, where guess what? a spewing torrent shooting out of the rockface. Not quite a torrential deluge…definitely more a spewing torrent…but it brings up a historic nemesis that the town has always had to face given our location on a flood plane.
Most of the town is built on a bench sitting above ‘the flats’, through which both the Kootenay and Goat rivers flow, and the Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area (a diverse wetland spanning several hundred acres) spans to Duck Lake, as well as Kootenay Lake (5th largest lake in BC) just north of Duck Lake, all on the same plane. Although there were farm settlement scouts prior to 1808 when David Thompson came through looking for trading and trapping routes, it was quickly passed up in favor of less risky areas. With that being said, ‘the flats’ turned out to be one of the prime seed crop (partially because of the water table height) and cattle grazing areas in this section of the Kootenay Valley. So there is a fair bit at stake by the recurrent and dramatic flooding that occurred nearly every spring. During Mr. Thompson’s exploration of the area, he quickly found himself in deep water as it were as his timing coincided perfectly with the spring runoff, which left rivers swelling and nearly un-navigable, with water an average of some 14 feet where it was previously dry ground. Because of this, he relied heavily on the generosity of the local first nations to help him traverse the season safely.
The town (upper level) is also striped by several creeks which drain into either the rivers or CVWMA…Some of the major ones being Arrow, Appleton, Lister, Tegllew and Dodds (Dead Horse). Though these do not wreak nearly as much havoc as the lower level water, they are split between storm overflow redirection and community irrigation/drinking water supply.
The cycle of floods and recoveries and perseverance in the valley have a truly incredible story. Farmers have some serious grit!
1893 shows some of the first farming efforts on the flats in the form of Reclamation Farm around the Nicks Island area, which is bordered by the north flowing Kootenay River. Due to it’s close proximity and low valley level, it was regularly plagued by seasonal overflow, damaging buildings and machinery. At the time, diking was somewhat of a futile attempt without the holding power of the Libby Dam in Montana completed in 1985. Spring runoff would either wash them away, or the number of veins coming off the Goat River (most of which have now dried up) would overwhelm the area, or the water table became too high since there was nothing to stem the main flow, that the groundwater had nowhere to go except to stay on the surface.
So since I am just so naturally curious, this got me wondering…what exactly are the flats made up of? Is there a layer of bedrock that makes it so difficult to drain? I mean, obviously there isn’t a sieve sitting under the ground :/ I know there is lots of clay on the bank of the Kootenay, does that extend further? (clay has like, zero drainage) As it turns out, yes! Actually, there is. According to a soil survey conducted in 1971 by the BC Department of Agriculture, the flats are composed of something known as an ‘Acorn Series’ of layers, which is apparently very well known for it’s terrible drainage properties. Layers of sand, topped with medium textured sediments with no dispersed stone that were deposited from thousands of years of the Kootenay River flooding and bringing with it the clay along it’s bank, and the icing on the cake being a dark organic remnant of a peat bog…which would explain a part of why it is so fertile. But not that it didn’t take many rounds of passing up the challenge and trying and failing to get there first.
Allow me to introduce you to Mr. William Adolph Baillie-Grohman. (no he is not the founder of the winery. just an adventurous namesake). But he is one of the first attempters [yes, attempter IS kind of a real word…] to reclaim the flats.
Mr. Bailley-Grohman was somewhat of an adventurous soul…he was an English adventure writer who fancied himself somewhat of an entrepreneur, leader, manly man, ladies man, the ultimate dude, versed in the art of manliness…
He greatly enjoyed big game hunts, and came to the area in the 1880’s hunting for Mountain Goats (which ironically are closer related to antelope than goats…)
However, his story turns into somewhat of a bumble somewhere along the line. You see, he came from wealth, and quite a bit of it, and used that to fund his fancies and ensure his comfort, so his self perception was…perhaps a little inflated. It was during his big game hunt that he got the idea to reclaim the flats, which would of course elevate him to somewhat of a hero’s status for the area! He applied for a grant to the Government, agreed to the terms (this is actually how we got the Midge on Kootenay Lake) got it, and set to. The problem is, that he didn’t have the first clue about ecosystems, the water systems, or where or how to even begin the process. His original attempt started up towards Canal Flats (type in Canal Flats BC on google maps…just do it…see where it takes you…). His solution was to divert the Kootenay River into Columbia Lake, because they are fairly close, but, in the end the might of the Kootenay won out over Baillie-Grohman’s determination; he gave up, packed his bags and returned to England.
Several see-saw attempts at diking took place over the next decades, which succeeded and failed based on the variations on the previous years snow pack and spring precipitation. Prior to the building of the Libby dam in Montana (which effectively stemmed the water flow enough that smaller dams and diking systems could mitigate the flow to reduce damage) there were two major events that were…well… truth is always stranger than fiction. Tune into the next posts to read the chapters leading up to the full reclamation of the Creston Flats, one of the most versatile farming regions in Canada.
Chapter One: The Night the River Turned South
Chapter Two: A Demi Hour on the Decade