Of the Baker City Herald

Baker City Councilor Charles Hofmann wants the city to take andquot;every possible meansandquot; to ensure the Smith Ditch, which failed in August and leaked last week, is safe before irrigation water starts flowing.

But the water's already there.

Water from the Powder River started pouring into the ditch about 6:30 a.m. today at the diversion in Bowen Valley, a few miles south of the city, said Jim Colton, who manages the Baker Valley Irrigation District.

Colton, who is not associated with the Smith Ditch, said the ditch owners have a legal right to that water.

andquot;They're calling the shots,andquot; he said.

The surge of water should reach Baker City late this afternoon, Colton said.

The ditch is carrying water at a rate of about 5 cubic feet per second (cfs), he said. about one-fourth the amount the waterway holds during the peak irrigation season.

Colton said the Smith Ditch Company has hired someone to patrol the ditch today to check for leaks.

But Hofmann wants the ditch owners to do more.

In an e-mail message he sent Sunday to the six other city councilors and to City Manager Jerry Gillham, Hofmann suggested the city require the ditch owners to hire an engineer to inspect the waterway.

andquot;I think there's ample reason to think that thing's unsafe, and I think they have to prove to us that it's safe,andquot; Hofmann said this morning. andquot;I'm not at that comfort level yet.andquot;

Hofmann said his concerns are based on two problems with the ditch.

First, on Aug. 16-17 of last year, an estimated 10 million gallons of water gushed through a 75-foot-wide breach in the ditch walls on Spring Garden Hill in southeast Baker City.

The muddy torrent splashed streets and yards across several blocks, causing tens of thousand of dollars in damage.

The City Council asked the ditch owners to reimburse the city for the $38,385 it spent to scrape the mud, but councilors rejected the ditch owners' $15,000 offer earlier this year.

Then, last week, a much smaller amount of water trickled from a gash in the Spring Garden Hill about 10 feet below the ditch, and about 150 feet west of the place where the ditch wall collapsed in August.

Last week the ditch was carrying only about 1 cfs of water, all from melted snow, Colton said.

The ditch owners had asked for the 5 cfs flow from the Powder River, but they learned about the leak in time to divert the water out of the ditch before it reached Spring Garden Hill.

Hofmann said his main concern is protecting residents who live below the hill and whose homes and yards were damaged during the August flood.

He said that since last week's leak he has talked with about half a dozen people who share his concerns.

andquot;Everybody that's talked to me about city business recently has talked about the Smith Ditch,andquot; Hofmann said.

andquot;The ones who live below the ditch and have talked to me are petrified.andquot;

Jim Young, who had to replace mud-encrusted furnace ducts in his home, said he's definitely worried.

andquot;People in this neighborhood demand that something be done about it,andquot; Young said last week. andquot;It's not a safe ditch. We can't live under that ditch all summer worrying about it breaking.andquot;

Hofmann said his secondary concerns involve liability for damage that might occur in the future liability he thinks could affect both the city and the councilors themselves.

Because both the city and the councilors are aware of the potential problems with the ditch, were it to fail again without the city at least trying to ensure the waterway is safe, the council and councilors could be liable, Hofmann said.

John Bootsma, the majority owner in the ditch company, said last week that he intended to seal the leaky section of the ditch with clay.

Bootsma declined to comment this morning, but Colton said workers apparently did spread clay in the bottom of the ditch during the weekend.