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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of July 25 - July 31, 2001


Wood rivers merge to form Malad River

Canyon plunge contributes to an electric finale


For the past two weeks, the Mountain Express has traced the Big Wood River in its various manifestations along its 111-mile-route to the Snake River. Today, the Malad, "The Canyon River," takes center stage.

Express Staff Writer

The story goes that the Malad River was named when a party of French trappers became ill from eating beavers on the riverís shores early in the 19th century and called it "Malade," meaning "sick."

The Malad River cuts through the north rim of the Snake River Canyon below the Interstate 84 bridge to enter Malad Gorge State Park on its final run to the Snake River. Express photo by Willy Cook

The Malad slices through the Snake River Plain south of Gooding, carving out an impressive gorge through deep volcanic lava flows. It is one of the most scenic sections of the Big Wood Riverís basin, and its steep rock walls could give cause for more than one stomach to turn while peering into the canyonís depths.

Historians, however, have not substantiated the story of the Maladís naming, and beavers are all but gone from the riverís shores.

But thereís another irony to be found in the gorgeís 250-foot-high rock walls. If the Malad, which is formed by the merging of the Big and Little Wood rivers, flowed historically at the same rates it does now, the canyon may never have been formed.

Upstream water consumption drains enough so the Malad simply pours, rather than roars, into the Snake River during most of the year. In fact, historic floods probably contributed significantly to the modern-day spectacle.

And the Malad, like its upstream tributaries, is used for human benefit. Hydroelectric power plants contribute significant scars to the 12-mile-long riverís banks and vertical canyon walls.

But the Malad, one of the shortest named rivers anywhere, is also especially productive for fly fishermen, indicating its relative health as an aquatic system.


Geology and orientation

The Malad is formed at the confluence of the Big and Little Wood rivers several miles west of Gooding, where the two Wood rivers tumble through moderately deep volcanic-rock-lined gullies and converge in a deep pool, about 30 feet below the Snake River Plainís fertile fields.

A diversion canal feeds Malad River water to a hydropower plant. Express photo by Willy Cook

Downstream, the river continues to carve through ancient layers of volcanic rock and drops over a 100-foot waterfall into The Devilís Washbowl, on the north end of 652-acre Malad Gorge State Park.

Rockhounds will find the two-and-a-half-mile-long gorge a fascinating example of Idahoís diverse geology, which is at the core of the Hagerman Valleyís rugged charm.

"Itís just beautiful here," says Twin Falls resident John Coverdale during a visit to Malad Gorge with his wife, Sheila, and daughter, Lindsay. The family spent part of a summer afternoon leaning over a bridge in the state park, peering down into the steeply pouring torrent 250 feet below. Itís a place Coverdale said his family visits several times a year to enjoy Mother Natureís handiwork.

But the canyon is too large to have been eroded by the small river that flows through it now, according to University of Montana geologists David Alt and Donald Hyndman. The canyon is carved into a complex of bedrock terraces, alcoves and balconies.

Probably, the gorge was the beneficiary of water that cascaded across Southern Idaho during the Bonneville Flood 15,000 years ago. The flood gouged out canyons, moved house-sized boulders and left enormous sand bars throughout the Snake River Canyon and in the Snakeís tributary canyons.

The flood occurred when Lake Bonneville, a significantly larger version of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, overflowed into Idaho over what is now called Red Rock Pass south of Pocatello.

The flood, which occurred over a period of a few months and drained about 600 cubic miles of water from Lake Bonneville, filled the Snake River Canyon in a catastrophic torrent that overflowed the canyonís rims.

Overflowing water likely returned to the main flood channel in the Snake River Canyon through side canyons, including Malad Gorge, where torrents shredded away volcanic deposits left by the plainís shield volcanoes.

The fact that the Malad Gorge is covered with black boulders of melon gravels ó smooth and rounded rocks ó is evidence that the massive torrent was a player in its formation.

Like many places on the north side of the Snake River, Malad Gorge is also riddled with large springs that cascade down the steep rock walls or bubble into the riverís cobblestone bed. The springs mark the meeting of the Snake River Plain Aquifer with the canyon, transforming groundwater to surface water.

Like other major water sources in Idaho, much of the Malad Riverís flows are diverted to generate power and irrigate fields, but the springs that remain resemble historic conditions and contribute clear, cold water to the gorgeís flows.

Just several hundred feet downstream of The Devilís Washbowl, springs clear the Maladís cloudy waters, contributing about 1,000 cubic feet per second of water. In times of drought when the Big and Little Wood rivers have dried up, the springs renew the Maladís journey to the Snake River.

All of the springs are in the lower four miles of the canyon and contribute clear, bluish water with a slight iridescence. The verve of a healthy-looking river emerges.


The electric river

The first of the Maladís four hydroelectric facilities sits on the confluence of the Big and Little Wood rivers, where the two streams carve smooth walls in volcanic rock and converge to form the Malad.

Owned by Gooding-area residents John Koyle and his son, Dennis, the plant draws water from the Big Wood and returns it through three turbines to the Malad, right on the lava-rock-lined confluence. The Koylesí plant almost has enough capacity to feed Goodingís power needs, Dennis Koyle says.

Koyle, whoís also an executive board member of the Wood River Watershed Advisory Group, says the Maladís four hydroelectric plants, along with the gorgeís springs, contribute to the riverís overall health by filtering and diluting the riverís sediments.

Sediments increase a riverís ability to absorb solar heat, and warmer rivers are less attractive to riparian plants and animals, he says.

Sediments are primarily introduced to the system by irrigation return canals, rain runoff and the riverís natural churning nature, but are removed from the system at the hydro plants, where settling ponds are used to filter water before channeling it though turbines.

"When this river hits the Snake River, itís pristine quality," Koyle says. "I see the Malad as pretty much a trouble-free section of river."

Downstream, in the Malad Gorge, two sizable diversions transfer the riverís water to canals that feed Idaho Power Co.ís Lower and Upper Malad hydroelectric projects.

The two plants were re-developed as part of Idaho Powerís post-World War II construction program. The Upper Malad Power Plant has a generating capacity of 8,270 kilowatts per hour. It includes a diversion dam on the Malad, a concrete gravity flume and a powerhouse with a generator.

The water from the upper project joins water from another diversion and is channeled to the Lower Malad Power Plant.

The Beaver River Power Co. built the lower plant in 1911, and Idaho Power acquired it in 1916 when the company was formed. The Lower Malad Power Plant diverts water from the Malad to a one-generator powerhouse that can produce 13,500 kilowatts per hour. It dumps the water directly into the Snake River, a few hundred yards downstream of the Maladís mouth.

Under a minimum flow agreement, Idaho Power must leave at least 70 cubic feet per second of water in the Maladís historic channel.

Russ Jones, Idaho Power spokesman says his companyís ability to produce hydroelectric power is critical to supplying electricity to Idahoans.

"During typical years, Idaho Power can generate 60 percent of its needs from hydroelectric plants," he says. "Idaho Power has 17 hydroelectric power plants along the Snake River and its tributaries, including the Malad plants. And the Malad plants are two of the smaller ones.

"Hydro power is very, very important to Idaho Power. Itís cheap to produce. Itís also important to the citizens of Idaho."

This yearís low water, combined with an expensive wholesale electricity market, prompted the power provider to raise its rates for the first time in decades. It was a controversial move, and the company has since begun building a gas-based electricity plant to reduce reliance on water during lean years.

"If weíd had a normal snowpack, we wouldnít be talking about these things," Jones says.

Though the Maladís power plants contribute to river health by helping to remove sediments and quench a growing electricity demand, thereís a tradeoff.

Where industrialists see a productive resource not going to waste, naturalists see a river that doesnít flow at potential levels, and diversions, particularly in the canyon, that are unsightly.


Water, industry and potential ghost towns

As a member of the Wood River Watershed Advisory Group, Dennis Koyle is responsible for protecting the interests of business and industry as they relate to water use throughout the Big Wood, Little Wood and Malad basins.

"We live in a desert," he says. "Without that water, there wouldnít be much purpose of the city of Gooding even being there. It was the water coming here that really gave this area life. If we were to lose this water or something happened that would take agriculture away, there wouldnít be much business or industry that would exist here."

Koyle acknowledges the myriad uses for water in the basin and says preserving the river and water quality for all related uses is important.

However, he says, "I feel like we have a tradition that is established through generations. When I sit on that board, even though I recognize the value and importance of preserving that river, I donít think it should be done at the expense of business and industry.

"I am much more interested in education and training and incentives than I am in legislation. I think most people want to be good stewards. Most people will do what they can to clean up their act."


Full Circle

From the "Scenic Riverís" tourism and municipal use to the "Working Riverís" sugar beet and corn production to the "Canyon Riverís" hydro plants, uses for the Big Wood Riverís water are truly diverse.

A stream bed that once flowed freely for 111 miles between Blaine Countyís mountains and the Snake River, is corked, manipulated and managed. Its waters are the life blood of economies and communities that would shrivel under Idahoís relentless summer sun were rivers and their water to vanish.

From the time a snowflake lightly settles on Galena Summit to the moment the same water molecule tumbles into the Snake River in the Hagerman Valley, 18,000 years might pass ó if the drop of water ever makes it that far.

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.