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Posted 4/19/2016

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     In South East Idaho, community members are working hard with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Walla Walla District (NWW) and the City of Pocatello to develop a guiding vision for the Portneuf River, a river channelized by USACE after a devastating 1962 flood that damaged much of Pocatello and the surrounding valley. The visioning effort will help the community integrate existing policies, plans, and new ideas into a document that will outline goals and objectives for improved river corridor management and identify environmental improvement opportunities.[1] USACE’s Collaboration and Public Participation Center of Expertise (CPCX) is leading the way in this collaborative effort which brings together a diverse stakeholder working group in developing a plan to revitalize four distinct reaches of the river from an area south of town called “the gap” through Pocatello and northward towards Fort Hall Indian Reservation.  In the process Pocatello residents are being challenged to reimagine their river and their community.

     Previous public engagement efforts by the City and by Idaho State University revealed that the concrete flood-control channel and earthen levees upstream of the channel will be the key challenge to creating a new vision for the river corridor. The channel has been a source of contention since its construction by USACE.  It is considered an eyesore for many in the community despite its flood risk management (FRM) benefits.  The majority of stakeholders who have engaged in this process want to see the concrete removed or the channel significantly modified, in order to provide river access, recreation, opportunities for economic revitalization, and to improve water quality and habitat. New studies have also challenged the need for the high level of flood protection the channel provides, which is significantly more than the flood of record. 

     Education, outreach, and thoughtful engagement of the community’s diverse stakeholders is instrumental to the success of this collaborative initiative.  After conducting a stakeholder assessment in Pocatello this past August, CPCX’s Seth Cohen and Andrea Carson designed a series of workshops to guide USACE, the City, and community members in completing this vision plan.  The process requires balancing USACE’s flood management requirements with the need to incorporate diverse stakeholder interests that range from environmental restoration, recreational connectivity along the river, neighborhood revitalization along the concrete channel, and making the river a source for economic vitality in an aging downtown area. 

     A major challenge lies in adequately engaging residents who might be opposed to any change, or the socially vulnerable populations in Pocatello who might be less likely to come to meetings and learn how the proposed plans will impact them. In addition, a share of homeowners whose homes were allowed to be constructed right up to the edge of the concrete channel’s vertical walls have been vocally opposed to any development that would require them to move. 

     The first CPCX facilitated workshop occurred in November of 2015 and was an interactive process of guiding stakeholders to identify challenges and opportunities along the river, resulting in the identification of potential project areas on maps developed by USACE. At that time the City was able broaden their audience virtually through a website developed in collaboration with Idaho State University. The website offered a platform for citizens who often avoid traditional public meetings to add comments to the maps and to contribute their vision for change via an online visual preference survey (learn more about the project at http://miles.isu.edu/ ).  The refined maps and preliminary survey results were presented to the public in an open-house styled meeting at a local charter school. At the meeting extensive community participation occurred, including leadership from high school students who helped many adults and elderly residents fill out the visual online survey. This community input gave the City, USACE, and the working group the direction it needed for the second workshop to develop the current guiding principles and goals for the visioning document.  The guiding principles and identified potential projects focus on four major areas: Water Quality and Ecosystem Health, Improving Access and Recreational Opportunities for the Public, Building Community around the River, and Creating Economic Value along the River.  

     In the third workshop this April, the stakeholders will be led through a Mini-Charrette to develop Conceptual Designs for High Interest Areas. In the last workshop set for June of 2016, the working group will rank and prioritize projects using a matrix created by NWW’s Project Development Team. It will be critical to evaluate potential tradeoffs that might occur along controversial sections of the Portneuf River. During the last working group meeting, the draft vision plan will be presented to the public and evaluated in another open-house styled gathering.  The project has been a successful inter-agency partnership to date and CPCX has played a key role in creating a living vision document that all hope will lead to a sustainable plan for the Portneuf River – a plan that diagrams tangible opportunities for near and long-term change and adequately reflects the community’s values and desired future.




[1] The effort stems from a cost share partnership between the City and NWW under the Planning Assistance to States (Water Resources Development Act of 1974, Section 22, as amended).