Residents, city laud Portneuf River Vision Study, plan to get final tweaks

This image shows the Raymond Park concept, looking downstream. Long-term recommendations for the park include building an amphitheater, picnic areas, splash pad, water trail and river access points, among other changes.

POCATELLO — The Portneuf River was a paradise when Terry Brower was a kid.

He remembers going down to the river and catching German brown trout and minnows as a youngster.

“It was kind of a magical place,” Brower said. “It’s a ditch now basically.”

Extensive flooding in 1962 and 1963 forced the Army Corps of Engineers to tame the Portneuf River with channeling and a concrete canal. The endeavor turned the waterway’s winding qualities into a straight shot through Pocatello’s downtown area.

A system of gates and a large levee were constructed, and while they mended the flooding problems the river posed, they altered its natural flow.

The Portneuf River Vision Study is an attempt to revitalize the river while still holding flood control as the top priority. The project aims to bring the Portneuf back to its natural state and set up a greenway that will contribute to recreational and economic growth.

It’s a way to restore the river to the slice of bliss Brower remembers. An open house Oct. 12 at Pocatello Community Charter School showcased the study and its projects. Posters of concept illustrations showed what places such as Raymond, Memorial and Centennial parks could look like. Local residents shuffled in and out of the school and left comments on sticky notes on different posters.

“Wow! No concrete — beautiful. That was the way it was when I was a kid,” Brower wrote on one of the posters.

On Oct. 13, the final draft of the vision study was brought before the Pocatello City Council. Paired with comments from the public and from the city, the study is headed back to the project planning team to make final tweaks and adjustments.

Hannah Sanger, manager of the city’s Science and Environment Division, is part of the project planning team. Once the team completes the vision study and factors in recommendations brought up by the residents and city officials, it will be brought back in front of the City Council. From there, the parties will work toward developing an implementation plan. A preliminary meeting for the plan will take place sometime in November or December, and residents who are interested are welcome to give their input.

Based on positive reinforcement and response from locals and the City Council, Sanger is optimistic and excited about the project’s future.

“The City Council was very perceptive and wants us to move forward,” she said.

The Army Corps of Engineers was brought on board to help facilitate the study and make plans. Ben Swaner, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, says the level of engagement by the community on the project is the most he’s ever seen.

That tells him Pocatellans are passionate about the river and want it to be a part of their lives again.

“The amount of public response we’ve seen rivals any project that I’ve been involved in,” Swaner said. “A lot of people in this community know about this project, and because of the efforts made to share this with the public, people are being into it now. … The likelihood of it succeeding is that much greater.”

The vision study suggests several projects to enhance the waterway and make it more accessible. Short-term projects range from establishing a water trail for canoes and kayaks to restoring eroded streambanks and native vegetation. Long-term projects include an extension of the greenway that connects businesses and parks, the reimplementation of historic meanders and the modification of the concrete channel to overhaul Raymond, Memorial and Centennial parks.

The venture, however, is not without its obstacles. Many of those who came forward said flood control needed to remain a main concern. There is also the challenge of how to accommodate the businesses and homeowners in areas that would be heavily affected by proposed projects.

“It is entirely up to the owners of those properties,” Sanger said. “Property owners can look at this vision and be inspired and perhaps they’ll have another idea of what can be done. The city can’t do anything on private property without private property owners’ permission.”

Brower believes the recovery and renewal of the Portneuf River is an investment that will pay dividends for Pocatello’s future. He imagines families walking through parks with their kids in safe, environmentally engaging place. He imagines men and women using the greenway to ride their bikes to work. He imagines children fishing off the banks of the Portneuf, like he did when he was a kid.

“My heart goes out to Hannah Sanger for trying to keep the vision alive,” he said. “It’s not going to happen in my lifetime where the river is restored to a natural state. … But this gives me hope that it will happen sometime, and hopefully people in Pocatello will recognize how important it is.”