Editorial: Close the gap on water in the Deschutes Basin

Bend Bulletin Editorial Board, Published Sept. 9, 2019

Farmers near Madras and Culver have had to again this year let some of their land fallow because of lack of water, as The Bulletin reported on Saturday. But there are possible solutions in the works to better meet the gap between supply and demand for water in the Deschutes Basin.

It could be better for farmers, river flows and better for fish and wildlife. And there is real pressure to find solutions — not only to help farmers but because of the Deschutes River’s Oregon spotted frog. It is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The key is to act on the possibilities discovered in the Deschutes Basin Study. That study was a collaborative effort by federal agencies, the state, irrigation districts, conservation groups, the Deschutes River Conservancy and more to identify problems and solutions for water in the basin.

One possibility that the study identified is as much as 135,000 acre feet of water could be shared by farmers with senior water rights to help farmers with junior water rights, such as those served by North Unit Irrigation District near Madras and Culver. An acre foot of water is the amount of water to cover one acre with one foot of water. It is about 326,000 gallons. Through water sharing that 135,000 acre feet of water could be shifted to where it is arguably needed more. And the great news is Central Oregon Irrigation District, a senior rights holder, and North Unit are already looking at ways to do more.

Of course, if it was without complication, more sharing would already be happening. The basin’s irrigation system wasn’t specifically built to share water between districts or divert more water to the Deschutes River. It was built for irrigation district patrons to take what they get. For instance, COID’s system of canals and laterals were not initially built to “deliver on demand” — with a system of gates, meters and laterals that would make sharing water with North Unit easier. There is also seepage in unlined canals, which makes it harder to get water where it is intended.

Money is another factor. It costs money to retrofit. More water patrons would also be interested in sharing their water if there is a financial incentive. Where is that money going to come from? At least according an analysis prepared for the basin study, sharing projects will cost one-tenth per acre foot the cost of projects that are more singularly focused on piping or building more storage. That’s not all that simple, either. New piping projects may be required to facilitate any sharing and keep irrigation districts fully operational.

Later this month, many of the same groups that collaborated on the basin study are going to start meeting again to try to make some of possibilities identified in the study happen. It’s not an irrigation season too soon.

Shon RaeEditorial: Close the gap on water in the Deschutes Basin
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September 11, 2019

The eight irrigation districts that serve Central Oregon and the City of Prineville have committed over a decade to working with local municipalities, state and federal agencies, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and non-governmental organizations to improve our collective irrigation network in a way that better serves our community, conserves water, and improves fish and wildlife habitat.

Competing demands for water in the Deschutes Basin is a difficult issue that dozens of groups have spent years trying to solve. The solution to this issue is not a quick fix or something that can be done overnight.

The Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) represents the best way to ensure productive, long-term results, on a schedule intended to keep agriculture producers in our region solvent. The purpose of the HCP is not to solve all the water issues in the Deschutes Basin. Rather, conservation measures in the HCP are designed to minimize and mitigate impacts to species listed under the Endangered Species Act, where such impacts may result from the storage, release, diversion, and return of irrigation water by the Districts and City of Prineville. Our efforts have been inclusive and science-based, and we are committed to implementing long-term solutions that not only address the needs of listed species but also benefit our region’s farmers and communities.

By piping open irrigation canals, promoting on-farm conservation by patrons (piping private deliveries, converting to sprinklers), and entering temporary instream leases, we have the opportunity to conserve millions of gallons of water each year. These projects will allow for the continued increase in winter flows in the Upper Deschutes River, improving fish and wildlife habitat. 

Over the next five years, the districts are expected to pipe more than 400,000 feet of open canals across Central Oregon, to the tune of nearly 94 cubic feet per second in water savings.  These conservation initiatives will help the Districts and City of Prineville:

  • Increase water reliability for farmers and fish
  • Improve fish and wildlife habitat
  • Decrease energy costs
  • Reduce operation and maintenance costs
  • Achieve system-wide results in a short period of time

In addition to the HCP, several other initiatives are underway to improve the ecological health of the Upper Deschutes River, including a water marketing grant program and the formation of the Deschutes Basin Water Collaboration.  This consensus-based entity will include representatives from irrigation, instream, and municipal interests, and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and will focus on addressing water imbalances in our basin.

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Swalley Modernization Project Authorized to Move Forward

Piping project will keep more water in-stream for fish and sustain local agriculture 

(April 4, 2019) – Plans to continue modernizing aging irrigation infrastructure in the Swalley Irrigation District recently have been approved to move forward into construction, marking yet another major milestone in irrigation improvements that will benefit farmers, fish, and local communities in the Deschutes Basin.

The final watershed plan and environmental assessment for the Swalley project was officially authorized on March 12th by Matt Lohr, Chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The plan was developed in partnership with the Swalley Irrigation District, the Deschutes Basin Board of Control (DBBC), and the Farmers Conservation Alliance. 

The Swalley Irrigation District has been awarded $11.2 million in federal funds through the NRCS Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program. Swalley will use the funds to modernize and pipe 16.6 miles of their remaining open canals to improve water conservation, water delivery reliability, and public safety, as well as contribute to increases in streamflow in the middle Deschutes River. The project will occur in phases over seven years. 

“To date, Swalley has piped 45 percent of their water delivery system and has made the single largest conserved water transfer in the state, providing critical support to habitat along the middle Deschutes River,” said Jer Camarata, Swalley Irrigation District general manager. “The District also produces enough renewable energy to power about 250 homes and businesses near the Old Mill and Southern Crossing neighborhoods in Bend, thanks to a partnership with Energy Trust of Oregon.”

“Piping our remaining canals is just a continuation of many years of effort by many people and many organizations, and we expect that these remaining large projects will offer huge gains for the community at-large,” Camarata added. “New infrastructure is being engineered with a 250-1,000 year lifespan. Pioneers and the federal government invested in our future 130 years ago and this is no different except for now we have a larger community to take care of. These projects are being designed to be truly robust.”

The first anticipated project phase will be the Rogers Lateral Piping Project, which will install 16,045 feet of pipe and reduce water loss by up to 20 percent. The first phase is expected to be completed in early 2020. 

Funding for this phase comes from $1.3 million in federal funds and $646,000 in state funding from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB). OWEB works with communities across Oregon to help protect and restore healthy watersheds. 

“OWEB is pleased to participate in projects that improve irrigation infrastructure and make more water available in stream, while also demonstrating the effectiveness of collaborative efforts at the federal and state levels,” said OWEB Executive Director Meta Loftsgaarden.

The modernization of Swalley’s remaining open irrigation infrastructure will conserve up to 6,172 acre-feet of water annually for instream and agricultural use. The improvements will also reduce the irrigation district’s operation and maintenance costs, as well as reduce electricity costs and consumption from pumping. Swalley Irrigation District currently serves 668 patrons, which includes Bend Parks & Recreation District, Bend-LaPine Schools, the City of Bend, Avion Water, the US Forest Service, and many others.

After several years of planning and considering public input through the development of an environmental assessment, the NRCS and project sponsors determined the project will not cause significant local, regional or national impacts to the environment. 

This modernization project is a team effort between the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Deschutes Basin Board of Control, the Swalley Irrigation District, Farmers Conservation Alliance, and Energy Trust of Oregon to help Oregon irrigators conserve water, reduce energy consumption, increase irrigation delivery efficiency and renewable energy potential, improve public safety, and benefit instream habitat for threatened and endangered fish species. 

“We’re proud of the collective work we’ve accomplished together to help modernize Oregon’s irrigation infrastructure,” said Julie Davies O’Shea, Executive Director of Farmers Conservation Alliance. “It will take continued investments from the government, irrigation districts, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector to continue supporting this important work.” 

This project builds on a history of collaboration and water conservation in the Deschutes Basin. “We are proud of the partnerships we have had over the last twenty years with irrigation districts across central Oregon to improve the water delivery systems that sustain agriculture. Irrigation modernization is essential to water conservation and a key component to ensuring a healthy, restored Deschutes River Basin,” said Ron Nelson, Executive Director at Deschutes River Conservancy. “The additional resources that the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farmers Conservation Alliance and Energy Trust of Oregon have brought into the basin will increase the pace and scale of these projects in districts across central Oregon, amplifying the benefits for agriculture and for our rivers.”

Background on the Planning Process

On December 3, 2018 the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) released a Notice of Availability of a Final Watershed Plan-Environmental Assessment (Plan-EA) and a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the Swalley Irrigation District Modernization Project. After several years of planning and considering public input, NRCS and project sponsors have determined the project will not cause significant local, regional or national impacts to the environment.

On September 21, 2018 NRCS released a Draft Plan-EA. Comments were accepted from September 21, 2018 to October 24, 2018. A public meeting was held October 10, 2018 at Cascades Academy in Bend to discuss the Draft Plan-EA and accept public comments. Comments were used to develop the Final Plan-EA and a response to each comment is provided in Appendix A of the Final Plan-EA.

The FONSI, Final Plan-EA, and other supporting planning documents are available below.

View the December 3, 2018 Notice of Availability and news release from NRCS.

For further information please contact: Farmers Conservation Alliance, 541-716-6085

Shon RaeSwalley Modernization Project Authorized to Move Forward
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Arnold Irrigation canal-piping project public meeting set

KTVZ.COM April 2

BEND, Ore. – The Arnold Irrigation District and project partners are holding a public meeting later this month to gather public input on a canal piping project to modernize aging infrastructure to conserve water, reduce energy use, improve operational efficiencies and enhance fish and wildlife habitat in the Deschutes River.

By converting open-ditch irrigation canals into underground, closed-pipe systems, the proposed Arnold Irrigation District Modernization Project could reduce seepage water losses by up to 14,607 acre-feet, a rate of up to 45.1 cubic feet per second, over the entire irrigation season, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service said in a news release Wednesday.

The project is sponsored by the Deschutes Basin Board of Control and the Arnold Irrigation District, with funding and technical support from the Energy Trust of Oregon, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farmers Conservation Alliance.

The proposed project is located primarily in central Deschutes County on the south side of the city of Bend.

Members of the public are invited to provide input to help guide planning efforts during a scoping meeting on Wednesday, April. 17 from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Elk Meadow Elementary Gymnasium, located at 60880 Brookswood Blvd. in Bend.

Participants will have an opportunity to learn more about the proposed irrigation improvements at the meeting and submit their comments, ideas and concerns.

The meeting location is accessible to persons with disabilities. A request for an interpreter for the hearing impaired or for other accommodations for persons with disabilities should be made at least 48 hours before the meeting to Raija Bushnell (541) 249-3495 or

Public comments may be submitted through May 15, 2019. Comments may be emailed to or submitted online at or mailed to: Farmers Conservation Alliance, 102 State Street, Hood River, OR 97031.

Following the public comment period, project partners will develop a Draft Watershed Plan – Environmental Assessment. The public will have an opportunity to review the draft plan and provide additional input.

Once complete, the watershed plan will enable NRCS to apply for funding to construct irrigation improvements through its Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention program, also referred to as PL-566.

Through this program, NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to states, local governments and Tribes (project sponsors) to plan and implement authorized watershed project plans for the purpose of watershed protection, flood mitigation, water quality improvements, soil erosion reduction, rural, municipal and industrial water supply, irrigation, water management, sediment control, fish and wildlife enhancement, and hydropower.

For more information about this and other irrigation modernization projects in Oregon, visit or visit the NRCS Oregon public notice webpage here.

Shon RaeArnold Irrigation canal-piping project public meeting set
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Another irrigation district piping project coming to Bend

Bend Bulletin Published April 5, 2019

Central Oregon residents will have a chance to weigh in later this month on a massive project to pipe canals to the south of Bend.

The Bend-based Arnold Irrigation District will hold a public meeting at Elk Meadow Elementary on April 17 as part of its proposal to replace its system of aging, open-air canals with enclosed, high-density polyethylene pipe. If the small irrigation district is able to replace its entire network of canals, the district estimates that it will be able to conserve more than 45 cubic feet of water per second, enough to flood more than 14,600 acres with a foot of water over an irrigation season.

“It just sounds like a good deal, and it’s probably something the district needs to do just out of social responsibility,” said Shawn Gerdes, manager and board secretary of Arnold Irrigation District.

Arnold Irrigation District maintains a network of 39 miles of canals and pipes, which it uses to provide about 640 customers with water diverted from the Deschutes River around Little Lava Island during irrigation season. Gerdes said the district has piped about 7.5 miles of the system, primarily in areas where subdivisions have gone in.

The remainder of the system, however, relies on open-air canals that were built about 1900, Gerdes said.

Like similar systems in Central Oregon, the canals lose a significant amount of water to evaporation and seepage. Making matters worse, Gerdes said much of the network was built in areas with lava rock, and water can seep into the porous rock more easily than in other parts of Central Oregon.

Consequently, the irrigation district loses just under half the water it diverts from the river before it reaches the district’s customers, Gerdes said. By replacing the canals with pipe, the district can divert less water while still delivering just as much to customers.

“It’s a way that we can actually put quite a bit of water back in the river,” Gerdes said.

Arnold Irrigation District is one of several irrigation districts operating in the Deschutes Basins that have kicked off ambitious piping projects in recent years, thanks to a growing network of grants and other funding mechanisms.

Last fall, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., spearheaded an effort through the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture to secure $30 million that could go toward piping Tumalo Irrigation District canals. Three Sisters Irrigation District has replaced more than 90% of its canals with enclosed pipe.

Margi Hoffmann, community relations director for Farmers Conservation Alliance, which works with irrigation districts to help secure state and federal funding, said Swalley Irrigation District recently had its plan to replace its system approved by the National Resources Conservation Service.

Hoffmann estimated that piping the system will cost $48 million. Because of that, Gerdes said securing outside funding is critical to getting a piping project going for a small district like Arnold.

“We really haven’t done any big piping projects at all,” Gerdes said. “This is all brand-new ground for us.”

To apply for federal funding through the NRCS Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program, Hoffmann said districts must submit a plan and go through a robust public process. During the meeting on April 17, residents will have the chance to learn about the project and weigh in on which parts of the system should be piped first. Public comments on the project will be accepted until May 15.

“This is really the first step,” Hoffmann said.

Gerdes said the piping project likely won’t break ground until 2021 at the earliest, and will likely focus on the district’s main canal before moving onto the secondary canals. While he acknowledged he didn’t quite know what to expect at the meeting, he said he was hopeful the community would understand the need.

“If you get the community and everybody else behind (the project), it can happen faster,” Gerdes said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818,

Shon RaeAnother irrigation district piping project coming to Bend
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Guest column: Finding common ground for farmers, food and fish

Bend Bulletin Guest Column                                                                                                                                                               

Feb. 23, 2019 at 09:30PM

Irrigation Modernization: Finding common ground for farmers, food, and fish

In today’s acrimonious political climate, it’s rare to read stories about public and private entities working together for the common good — particularly when it comes to the environment and limited natural resources.

This is one of those stories.

In 2015, Hood River-based Farmers Conservation Alliance (FCA), with support from Energy Trust of Oregon (ETO), developed the Irrigation Modernization Program (IMP) to help irrigation districts and the farmers they serve revolutionize their water delivery systems. The goal? Improve conservation efforts and keep more water flowing for farmers, food, and fish.

In Central Oregon and throughout the western U.S., aging agricultural infrastructure, an expanding population, persistent droughts, and declining fish populations are stressing scarce water resources. Farmers rely on irrigation to grow food. But the centuries-old dams and canals that capture and convey this water from rivers to farms can be inefficient — anywhere from 30 to 70 percent may be lost to seepage and evaporation.

The IMP is a comprehensive approach helping farmers and irrigators identify opportunities to modernize decades old practices and infrastructure – the complexities of which would be overwhelming and cost-prohibitive for individual irrigation districts to tackle alone.

This transformative program designs irrigation systems that utilize the best available technologies while reducing the cost and time required for planning and implementation. Key benefits include:

  • Water savings: Piping canals optimizes water use while ensuring more water is available for farms, rivers, and
  • Energy savings: Pipes pressurized by gravity or a central pumping station reduce or eliminate the need for on-farm pumping, saving money and energy.
  • Improved stream conditions: Piping canals and their associated water losses mean more water remains in-stream.
  • Clean energy production: Surplus water pressure from gravity, either at a farm or in district-owned pipes, can be harnessed to generate hydropower during irrigation season that does not impact fish or wildlife and creates a revenue stream that can help pay for infrastructure projects.
  • Accelerated results: Historically, farmers and ranchers have upgraded their infrastructure on a piecemeal, project-by-project basis, which delays conservation benefits.

Irrigation Modernization in Central Oregon would not be progressing as efficiently nor as quickly without the committed cooperation of multiple public and private entities. In a day and age where finding common ground is becoming more difficult, it’s heartening to see a broad collection of agencies and nonprofits actively working together on solutions for the benefit of our entire community.

FCA along with ETO is working collaboratively with stakeholders across conservation and farming communities to make sure Irrigation Modernization benefits everyone, including the farmers and fish that rely on the Deschutes River. Other collaborators include the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, State of Oregon Clean Water State Revolving Fund, Oregon Water Resources Department, as well as numerous agricultural and conservation groups.

And, thanks to the efforts of U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, Tumalo Irrigation District was recently awarded nearly $29.7 million in federal funding to pipe 68 miles of open irrigation canals. Not only will this save billions of gallons of water annually that benefit the environment, it will also bring high-quality construction jobs to our local economy.

Deschutes Basin irrigation districts are at the forefront of the Irrigation Modernization Program. It’s a testament to the success of the program that 21 of Oregon’s irrigation districts, representing approximately 25 percent of the state’s agricultural water use and all the districts in the Deschutes River watershed, are participating in the Irrigation Modernization Program.

Central Oregon and other regions across the West are faced with the impacts of long-term drought, which threaten our most life-sustaining natural resource. There’s a lot at stake and a lot of competing interests. Modern water management practices are focused on long-term solutions that balance the needs of a healthy environment while ensuring enough water is available to farmers and citizens. It’s a collaborative effort of which Central Oregonians can be proud.

Deschutes Basin Board of Control, Mike Britton, President                                                                                                                          Coalition for the Deschutes, Gail Snyder, Executive Director

Shon RaeGuest column: Finding common ground for farmers, food and fish
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Oregon’s water infrastructure hasn’t been upgraded for 100 years. Some think it’s time to fix that.

by  Published in Energy and Environment

Part one of a new series of stories that investigates how the business community is creating solutions to climate change.  

Every summer day in rural Oregon, farmers order up water from an army of “ditch riders,” the bartenders of irrigation. They run between canals, opening and shutting valves to divert the flow to their customers. Somewhere between a quarter to 60% of that precious water evaporates or seeps into the ground before it reaches farms. This isn’t a scene from Oregon circa 1900. It’s Oregon in 2018.

Like other western states, Oregon thirsts for some $7.6 billion of upgrades to its antiquated canals, dams and wastewater treatment plants. In Central Oregon alone, 1,600 canals need upgrading at an estimated cost of around $2 billion. To put that in perspective, the landmark transportation package legislators passed in 2017 funded $5.3 billion of improvements.

Healthcare, affordable housing and transportation top the agenda at planning meetings. Water, not so much.

“The last time Oregon upgraded its water infrastructure was when Phil Knight was making shoes in a waffle iron,” Bobby Cochran, executive director of Willamette Partnership, told policymakers and business executives last week at an annual economic summit in Portland.

Climate change compounds the problem. A drought has plagued parts of Central Oregon for years. By 2080, Cochran says, more than half of the precipitation that hits Mount Hood will arrive as rain, not snow. It will run away before farmers and cities can use it.

Related Story: Climate change dominates business leadership talks

“Almost any day you open a paper it’s talking about how reservoirs are way way down,” says Jed Jorgensen, an energy project manager at Energy Trust of Oregon.“All the research is pointing to a change in how we see rain and snow accumulating in the state.”

Low snowpack and persistent drought have taken their toll in the Deschutes Basin. The drought spanned five of the past six years and exhausted the Wickiup Reservoir, southwest of Bend, for the first time in decades. Mike Britton, manager of the basin’s North Unit Irrigation District says, “this last year was far more extreme than what I’ve seen in the past.”

Britton doesn’t hold climate change responsible, but he says, “Talk to me in five years and if it’s still like this I might change my story.”

“The last time Oregon upgraded its water infrastructure was when Phil Knight was making shoes in a waffle iron,”
—Bobby Cochran, executive director of Willamette Partnership

Food production consumes around 80% of the water used in the Western United states. As cities expand and groundwater levels shrink, urban and rural areas could clash over water rights. Ground zero is the Umatilla Irrigation District, home to four of the state’s seven critical groundwater areas. Data centers and population growth are encroaching on farmers’ needs.

“As the cities grow in our region they’re sucking the same groundwater as the ag[riculture] producers need,” says J.R. Cook, founder of the Northeast Oregon Water Association in Pendleton. “They’re starting to cut their own throats.”

In the Willamette Valley, heart of Oregon’s agricultural production and wine country, farmers are turning to different crops as water runs short. Most of the region’s reserves are stored in Detroit Lake for irrigation and a federal flood control project. But now cities and industry want in, prompting a conversation about reallocation.

“We are literally trying to stabilize our economy by starting at the first level, the basic necessity of water,” says Danielle Gonzalez, a management analyst for Marion County.

Currently, Salem gets first dibs, ahead of smaller rural communities upstream along the Santiam River. “It’s a potential for conflict if we don’t get that right,” says Gonzalez.

The Marion County board of commissioners is working with water experts, economists and federal agencies on reallocation options. In February, ECONorthwest will release the final report on its findings.

A canal in Alfalfa, near Bend.

There’s a simple, if costly, solution to some of rural Oregon’s water woes: put canal water in big pipes under pressure. Oregon is leading the charge among western states with its statewide Irrigation Modernization Project, launched in 2015 by Energy Trust of Oregon and Farmers’ Conservation Alliance. Energy Trust has funded about $200,000 for 20 districts across the state to begin planning.

Pipes solve the waste from runoff, seepage and evaporation. Districts that have installed pipes have found themselves with a surplus of water that can power micro-hydro systems or be returned to sensitive ecosystems.

The Sisters Irrigation District saved 9 million kilowatt-hours of power after piping almost all of its 63 miles. Farmers Irrigation District in Hood River saved money on energy and tackled two climate issues at once—creating water sources that firefighters used during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. Farmers get a more efficient supply of water for their crops, especially important given the recent droughts.

“You’re saving energy,” Jorgensen says, “but you’re also saving that farmer a lot of money.”

Federal money and state matching funds will prove essential for pushing the costly projects through. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has financed $30 million of improvements in the Tumalo Irrigation District near Bend. Britton’s district in the Deschutes Basin won $50 million in federal funding for pipes.

A plan from the modernization project is well on its way to solving some of the district’s water issues. But Britton says he’s still searching “desperately” for partners to match the funds for the vast project. “That’s really what this district needs,” he says, “help putting pipe in the ground.”

Related Story: Rural county stakes future on renewable energy

To date, the modernization project has updated around 579 miles of canals across the state with pipes of up to 11 feet wide, making it one of the largest piping projects in the West. Jorgensen says other cities and states are looking for ways to replicate the success so far.

“These projects have tremendous potential to be a game changer to help the environment adapt to a changing climate,” Jorgensen says. “The goal is how can we accelerate this work and scale it across Oregon”

The clock is ticking. Much of the state’s water infrastructure remains unprepared for the increased flooding and drought that climate scientists have predicted. As the conversations among state leaders take on a more urgent tone, more large-scale projects could take shape.

“We’re right at the cusp of trying to figure all this out,” Gonzalez says. “We’ve been so used to having all the water that we want. I don’t know if we’ve thought about it at this level.”

Next week in the series, we’ll dive deeper into water management, exploring projects that cut costs through designing with natural systems. 

Shon RaeOregon’s water infrastructure hasn’t been upgraded for 100 years. Some think it’s time to fix that.
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Guest column: City, county, irrigation districts committed to long-term Crooked River health

BEND BULLETIN: Published Nov. 24, 2018


Central Oregon’s current drought conditions, coupled with a lower-than-average snowpack forecast this winter, has understandably fueled concerns for those of us who value the rivers and streams of the Deschutes Basin.

In Prineville and Crook County, our lifeblood water is the Crooked River. It is part of our lives, flowing past our city, homes, farms and ranches. It’s vital in so many ways — from recreation and irrigation to our quality of life.

Therefore, it is our collective duty to balance the region’s usage needs with the needs of a healthy river.

While multiagency collaboration and irrigation efficiency upgrades may not grab newspaper headlines, the reality is that numerous local governments, irrigation districts and state and federal agencies are proactively investing in and moving forward on Crooked River conservation projects to improve streamflow and restore river habitat.

For example, Central Oregon’s eight irrigation districts and the City of Prineville are working together on the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan, an unprecedented, collaborative effort to improve fish and wildlife habitat in the Deschutes Basin. The HCP will enable the districts and city to continue to supply water for irrigation and municipal purposes throughout Central Oregon.

Other proactive conservation efforts these groups have recently undertaken include:

• Crooked River Wetland Complex, in which more than two miles of riparian improvements to the Crooked River have been implemented, as well as the construction of over 120 acres of wetlands, benefiting many species of fish and wildlife while lowering river temperatures.

• Protective fish screens to prevent small fish from entering irrigation canals, enabling them to move downstream safely. In addition, installation of fish ladders have helped strengthen fish populations by allowing them to once again migrate freely.

• Modernization of aging irrigation infrastructure to conserve water, and improve streamflow.

• Replacement of leaky main water pipes, installation of new meters and advance urban management saves more than 130 million gallons of water annually for the City of Prineville.

What’s more, the Crooked River Collaborative Water Security and Jobs Act of 2014 accelerates fish and wildlife habitat improvements to the Crooked River, including the reintroduction of steelhead and higher streamflows.

The 2014 Act allocates nearly half of the total stored water in the Prineville Reservoir to fish and wildlife resources, nearly 60,000-acre-feet. And, thanks to the leadership of Sen. Jeff ­Merkley, Rep. Greg Walden and former Gov. John Kitzhaber, those water supplies are intended to benefit fish and wildlife downstream without harming existing water rights holders on the Crooked River.

This effort was the culmination of more than 30 years worth of collaborative work by the Ochoco and North Unit irrigation districts, city of Prineville, Crook County, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and many other conservation groups.

Because of these initiatives, habitat conditions for fish and wildlife, including the Oregon spotted frog, steelhead and others, are improving throughout the Deschutes Basin.

Today, there is a little over 20 cubic feet of water per second flowing into Prineville Reservoir and over 50 cfs flowing out of Bowman Dam. It is important to note: July through Oct. 9, there was zero inflow with over 240 cfs released for the fish, farming, recreation and the city’s municipal and industrial water for the benefit of fisheries. Farmers faced water cutbacks all summer.

While we are steadfast in our commitment to conservation efforts on the Crooked River, we can’t change the weather. Given the drought conditions in the Deschutes Basin, flows into the reservoir are no doubt cause for concern. Fortunately, state and federal agencies like the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are closely involved with decisions about the amount of water to be released for fish and wildlife purposes.

So, while Mother Nature may not be doing her part to solve the water challenges we face, your elected officials and state and federal agencies most certainly are.

— Betty Roppe is the mayor of Prineville. Brian Barney is a Crook County Commissioner.

Shon RaeGuest column: City, county, irrigation districts committed to long-term Crooked River health
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El Niño could bring warm, dry winter to Central Oregon

Snowfall varies widely in El Niño years



Published Oct. 20, 2018

As winter approaches, the evidence suggesting another low-snow year for Central Oregon and much of the Pacific Northwest is mounting.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center’s most recent update to the winter outlook notes a 70 percent to 75 percent chance of a weak El Niño weather pattern developing over the Pacific Ocean in the next couple of months. For much of Oregon, this may mean warmer temperatures and less snowfall.

“It doesn’t mean you’re not going to see winter; it just means you’re going to see temperatures that are on average higher than normal,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center.

El Niño is the name given to a climate pattern that involves warmer-than-normal sea water and atmospheric changes in the central Pacific Ocean. El Niño patterns affect regions of North America in different ways, although they’re known for bringing less snow than usual to Central Oregon, said Marilyn Lohmann, hydrologist for the National Weather Service’s Pendleton office.

In a region mired in drought after a series of low-snow winters, another dry, warm winter could exacerbate problems throughout the Deschutes River Basin for farmers and fish.

“I think there’s some anxious folks, to be honest,” said Mike Britton, general manager of North Unit Irrigation District.

Halpert said the Climate Prediction Center, which provides data and predictions designed to help communities prepare for climate risks, looks at a variety of indicators when predicting an El Niño event, including surface and subsurface water temperatures and the location of rainfall in the tropics. While the rainfall location hasn’t yet squared with what the center would expect during an El Niño year, the water temperature is approaching the threshold that would suggest a weak El Niño, he said.

The Climate Prediction Center is planning to update its El Niño prediction in mid-November, when some of the climate indicators will be more settled, Halpert said.

If it does come to fruition, there’s no telling precisely how an El Niño pattern would affect Central Oregon. History suggests it will cause a milder winter than normal.

Bend receives an average of about 31 inches of snow between October and April, Lohmann said. During 11 years where a weak El Niño system was present, the city averaged 24.2 inches, about 22 percent less than a typical winter.

Lohmann added that snowfall in the 11 years the weather service examined varied dramatically. Totals ranged from 4.8 inches to 49 inches during weak El Niño years.

The last weak El Niño, which occurred during the 2014-15 winter, was one of Central Oregon’s driest winters to date, with just 8 inches of snow falling in Bend all year, virtually none of which lasted until spring, Lohmann said. By contrast, the El Niño pattern that occurred the following winter was much stronger globally, although it brought a roughly average amount of snow to Bend and Central Oregon.

“Each one is different, and there’s a lot of other atmospheric things in play, as well,” Lohmann said.

The Climate Prediction Center is forecasting warmer-than-usual weather in Oregon and Washington, with a roughly equal chance of being drier-than-normal or wetter-than-normal, Halpert said.

Central Oregon’s snowpack is susceptible to small fluctuations in temperature, which can make the difference between precipitation falling as rain instead of snow, Lohmann said.

“It just takes a few degrees, especially in the mountains,” she said.

Central Oregon saw significantly less snow than usual last winter and spring, which left the region in bad shape once irrigation season began. Wickiup Reservoir, Central Oregon’s largest, reached its lowest level in 60 years just months after filling to capacity, thanks to irrigation demand and a lack of precipitation throughout the year.

Water levels at several large reservoirs in the Crooked River Basin also dropped well below their seasonal averages.

North Unit Irrigation District, which relies heavily on Wickiup Reservoir, sets allotment totals for farmers during dry years, but still left Wickiup at 1 percent full by the end of irrigation season, Britton said. If there’s another dry year, Britton said, more farmers could leave portions of their fields unsown to conserve water.

“We’re starting to see a lot of fallow ground,” Britton said.

A light snowpack could hurt fish living in Central Oregon’s rivers. Kimberley Priestley, senior policy analyst for WaterWatch of Oregon, said the Crooked River is more snow-driven than the Deschutes, making it more vulnerable to a single dry winter. Low levels on the Crooked River could cause problems for redband trout, steelhead and other species living in the river.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818,

Shon RaeEl Niño could bring warm, dry winter to Central Oregon
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Federal money flows into Deschutes Basin piping projects

USDA-backed project gets going near Tumalo, others planned

Stephen Hamway

Bend Bulletin

Published Oct. 15, 2018 


With the summer irrigation season winding down and the winter snowfall still on the horizon, several irrigation districts in the Deschutes Basin are planning or breaking ground on ambitious piping projects, armed with a sizable cache of federal money.


At the beginning of October, Tumalo Irrigation District broke ground on the first phase of a project that would install enclosed pipes in the remainder of the irrigation district’s open-air canals, with the help of around $30 million secured by the U.S. Senate Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a ranking member on the committee, praised the funding for helping the district conserve water for farmers and protect habitat within the basin.

“I am pleased that through perseverance and bipartisan collaboration, rural Oregon will receive an economic and environmental boon,” Merkley said in a prepared statement.

Additionally, Central Oregon Irrigation District, Swalley Irrigation District and Lone Pine Irrigation District are each planning similar projects, according to Tom Makowski, assistant state conservationist for watershed resources and planning for the National Resources Conservation Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Makowski said the agency has secured around $50 million for projects spread throughout the basin over the next five years.

“We see this as a good thing for agriculture,” Makowski said. “It’s a good return on our investment.”

Makowski said the projects are part of a larger effort to replace the leaky canals spread across the Deschutes Basin with enclosed pipes, a move he says will keep much-needed water in the basin’s rivers and reservoirs, providing habitat for wildlife and supporting Central Oregon in the face of low snowpacks and population growth.

“It’s water, and it’s the West,” Makowski said. “There’s gonna be more demand.”

Several irrigation districts in the Deschutes Basin are no stranger to piping their canals, which in some areas are nearly a century old. Both Tumalo and Three Sisters irrigation districts began piping canals about 15 years ago in order to save water. More recently, COID piped more than 3,000 feet of its canal near Brookswood Boulevard in Bend last winter, using grants from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to supplement the project cost.

Still, Makowski said this slate of projects represents the first time the NRCS has participated in piping projects in the Deschutes Basin since 2016, when a settlement regarding the Oregon spotted frog mandated that water levels in the Deschutes Basin not fall below certain thresholds. He added that the settlement prompted irrigation districts to look more seriously at water conservation.

“If (the frogs) needed more water, the districts were the ones who were going to get cut,” Makowski said.

Kenneth Rieck, manager of Tumalo Irrigation District, said years of preparation helped the district begin working as soon as its irrigation season ended at the end of September.

“Once the water was out of the canals, we just dove right in,” Rieck said.

Rieck added that the first phase of the project will install pipe in 8,400 feet of canal managed by the district. He said the project will reduce the amount of water lost to leakage, allowing the irrigation district to return 7 cubic feet per second to the basin. Ultimately, the district hopes to pipe its entire system, including about 65 miles of smaller canals.

“This is the largest project, in length and dollars, that we’ve attempted,” Rieck said.

The first phase is projected to cost $6.7 million, with the national conservation service covering $5 million, according to Makowski. Makowski noted that helping to fund irrigation projects fits the USDA’s mandate to support agriculture in local communities.

Local and state environmental groups praised the approach as well. Jim McCarthy, communications director for WaterWatch of Oregon, said piping projects are designed to work in tandem with efforts by farmers to conserve water on their own properties and efforts to share water between irrigation districts. McCarthy added that returning even relatively small amounts of water to streams and rivers can help fish and other animals access areas of the basin that they may not have been able to otherwise.

“Connectivity is a huge issue, and 5 (cubic feet per second) can provide that connectivity in certain areas,” McCarthy said.

Gail Snyder, executive director for the Bend-based environmental group Coalition for the Deschutes, said it becomes easier to implement other conservation methods once the canals are piped. With more water in the system, Snyder said farmers become more willing and able to conserve water on their end. Additionally, irrigation districts with senior water rights become less reluctant to share with junior water right-holders when there’s more water available.

“We need all the tools available to us to conserve water so we can restore the river,” she said.

—Reporter: 541-617-7818,

Shon RaeFederal money flows into Deschutes Basin piping projects
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