Districts make last-ditch effort to conserve water for Deschutes River

By MICHAEL KOHN The Bulletin Dec 12, 2020

Habitat Conservation Plan could require district to release 300 cfs of water into the Deschutes by 2028

As farmers across Central Oregon face a third straight year of drought, and wildlife in this region’s rivers teeter on the brink of extinction, thosewho control the flow of water are primed to pump millions of dollars into infrastructure in a last-ditch effort to help both people and wildlife.

Central Oregon Irrigation District, the largest district in Central Oregon in terms of patrons, is at the vanguard of this effort and expects to pour $100 million over the next decade to pipe a significant portion of its open canals and ditches, said Craig Horrell, the district’s general manager. Tens of millions more will be spent by other irrigation districts in the area.

The two-pronged disaster to both wildlife and the farming community is connected to climate change, as nature simply isn’t delivering the snowpack that it did in decades past. But it’s also a human-caused problem because the irrigation canals in Central Oregon, built more than a century ago, are so porous that they lose half the water that enters them before it can reach its destination.

COID estimates that its Central Oregon canal loses 99 cubic feet of water per second. The district’s Pilot Butte Canal loses 158 cubic feet per second. One cubic foot of water is equivalent to 7.48 gallons of water.

Over the past 12 years, the irrigation districts have overcome differences to form a united front to tackle their collective problem and figure out a way to conserve water for themselves and the environment. Known as the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, that collective is on the brink of finalizing its Habitat Conservation Plan that commits them to water conservation for the next three decades. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service anticipates the plan will be approved by the end of the year.

The plan doesn’t require the districts to pipe their canals — water conservation can also be done through water marketing and on-farm improvements — but with federal funding available to them through grants, piping is certain to feature prominently in their projects.

Central Oregon Irrigation District’s current piping effort is focused on a section of canal between Redmond and Smith Rock. That 8-mile stretch will cost $33 million to pipe and will conserve around 30 cubic feet of water, or 9,392 acre-feet annually.

On deck is a $6 million project to pipe lateral ditches near Smith Rock. On-farm efficiency projects will also be funded.

Other districts are pitching in too. North Unit Irrigation District will construct approximately $32 million in piping projects over the next decade. Swalley Irrigation District will spend $11.8 million over the same period.

The goal of all this piping, as set out in the Habitat Conservation Plan, is to increase the winter flows in the Deschutes to 300 cubic feet per second by 2028. The current winter flow is 105 cubic feet per second.

In exchange for meeting that target, the districts will receive incidental take permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which allows them to operate without the threat of litigation from environmental groups. The wildlife service is expected to make a final permit decision on the plan before the end of this month.

Increasing the flow will benefit Oregon spotted frog habitat, which has been degraded by years of low winter flows and wide swings from winter to high summer flows. Threatened fish in the Deschutes, including red band trout, will also benefit.

Meeting targets likely means piping all 26 miles of the Pilot Butte Canal, said Horrell, a project that could make up the bulk of the $100 million his district plans to spend.

While piping the big canals makes headlines and carries the heaviest expense, piping lateral ditches is also crucial to conserving water, said Kate Fitzpatrick, director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, a nonprofit group that is helping the districts to fund the piping projects.

“We will be working with landowners to incentivize as much of this work as possible to maximize project benefits for the river,” Fitzpatrick added.

Horrell said that irrigation districts and farmers are also spending their own money to improve on-farm operations and delivery systems. Water marketing and leasing are also important components of the overall water-saving plan.

“To meet the lofty goals of the HCP, and to get to 300 cfs in seven years, we will use a variety of tools, including water leasing, water marketing and piping,” said Horrell.

The piping projects are largely dependent on federal funding through the federal Watershed Program known as PL-566, which authorizes the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help local organizations protect and restore watersheds up to 250,000 acres. Funding is currently set at $150 million annually.

The plans to pipe are a team effort. The city of Prineville joined the eight irrigation districts in Central Oregon to submit the Habitat Conservation Plan, and a handful of environmental nonprofits are also teaming up with the districts to collaborate on projects and funding.

“All districts have been actively ramping up to modernize and pipe as much as possible within this decade,” said Jeremiah “Jer” Camarata, general manager for Swalley, which covers 4,331 acres north of Bend and near Tumalo.

But the funding that everyone is counting on to make these pipe projects work is far from certain. Government resources also play a role, and going forward, a post-COVID-19 world could be one of tight resources.

“Each year Congress has to appropriate funds and the state-based programs also depend on variables such as lottery dollars,” said Camarata. “So there are no guarantees that projects will get funded in any given year, which would clearly push the timelines back.”


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Tug of water: Plan restores flows to Upper Deschutes but may fall short for threatened species

By Bradley W. Parks (OPB)
Bend, Ore. Dec. 2, 2020

Frogs and fish in the Upper Deschutes River will get more water in the winter, but it may not be enough to protect them.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to decide on a plan to conserve habitat for threatened species in Central Oregon’s Deschutes Basin. It will mark the end of a yearslong debate over how to allocate a limited resource to meet the needs of fish, frogs, farmers and all others who use water.

Humans have tinkered with Central Oregon rivers over the years to meet the water demands of a growing region, ravaging habitat for threatened wildlife in the process.

“Our native fish and amphibians have been hurt quite a bit by how we manage the river,” said Tod Heisler, who directs the rivers program for Central Oregon LandWatch. “Essentially we’re managing that Upper [Deschutes] River like an irrigation ditch, not managing it as an aquatic ecosystem.”

If approved, the plan would set in motion a 30-year itinerary to move the basin’s waterways — including the Upper Deschutes and Crooked rivers — back toward their natural state by restoring flows. In short, it means more water for frogs and fish in the winter and, ultimately, less for irrigators in the summer.

Water managers say this lays a foundation for long-term projects to better share water across the basin while also conserving critical habitat.

“Now, it isn’t a fix for the whole river for the next hundred years, but it is a huge, huge benefit to the foundation of that change,” said Craig Horrell, managing director for the Central Oregon Irrigation District and president of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control.

Environmental groups have lined up in opposition to the plan, saying it falls short of protecting fish and frogs in the short term when they need it the most.

The frog in question
A visit to the Upper Deschutes River this time of year shows a lowly trickle of water floating by bald riverbanks and parched side channels, which visualizes a key part of the problem.

The river supports wetland habitat for the Oregon spotted frog, which earned Endangered Species Act protection in 2014. The frog’s listing added urgency to conservation discussions already underway for native fish.

“Over the years the frogs kinda hijacked the fish,” said Mike Britton, general manager for the North Unit Irrigation District.

Related: Frogs, fish and farmers feel out compromise on the Deschutes

Water managers have for years turned the river “off,” so to say, in the winter to store water in reservoirs. Turning the river “on” releases stored water for agricultural use in the spring and summer.

High summer flows basically rip vegetation from riverbanks, while low flows in the winter dry out side channels. That strands fish to freeze and die if they’re not eaten by predators first. It also leaves a wide gulf of land between riparian vegetation and the river’s edge, both of which the frogs need to survive.


“It’s an aquatic amphibian that needs water all the time,” Heisler said. “You can imagine that when you drain the water in the winter and then you flood it in the summer, you’ve basically wrecked its prime habitat.”

An Oregon spotted frog floats in an irrigation canal in this photo from July 27, 2016.
An Oregon spotted frog floats in an irrigation canal in this photo from July 27, 2016. The frogs have lost nearly 90% of their historical range.

Brian Feulner / Pacific Legal Foundation

After its listing, the Deschutes Basin’s eight irrigation districts and the city of Prineville had to develop a plan to protect the frog — as well as steelhead, bull trout and other species — in order to legally operate.

“As a district, I can say what we’re promising to do is scary for me to implement, but we’re happy to do it,” said Horrell, with the Central Oregon Irrigation District. “We’re happy that there’s a plan out there finally.”

The plan before the Fish and Wildlife Service would gradually increase the amount of water in the Upper Deschutes in the winter and decrease it in the summer. It essentially flattens the curve of the hydrograph back toward the river’s historically even flow.

“This more balanced water management approach reduces negative habitat impacts and species strandings,” FWS Bend field supervisor Bridget Moran wrote in an email. “Water management changes will be less abrupt than they have been in the past, allowing species to move in and out of habitats to meet their life history needs.”

The plan also contains habitat conservation provisions for frogs and other species on the Crooked River, Whychus Creek and other waterways in the Deschutes Basin.

Too little too late?
The Center for Biological Diversity and WaterWatch led a 2015 lawsuit to increase minimum flows on the Upper Deschutes. They, along with Central Oregon LandWatch, have said the new plan fails the basin and its wildlife.

LandWatch’s Heisler said that while the plan is an improvement, it doesn’t do enough to help fish and frogs right away.

“They’re basically just saying that we’re going to maintain and sustain a very degraded habitat,” he said.

Related: The challenges facing Oregon amphibians

The groups want to see the river restored to a moderate flow immediately, then gradually bumped up, which they argue is more in line with the conclusions of the landmark 2017 Deschutes Basin Study.

“For us, we’ve been hearing since the beginning … that it’s not enough soon enough,” said Britton with the North Unit Irrigation District, “but we’re trying to rewind a hundred years of history and culture.”

The study found that there is enough water to go around in this high desert region if it’s managed efficiently.

Stakeholders, including FWS, seem to agree that restoring flows is a first step that should be followed by on-farm conservation measures, piping and canal projects, and market-style water trading.

The draft version of the plan was released last fall and received more than 1,600 public comments, which guided the final version of the plan submitted in November.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make its permit decisions no sooner than Sunday.

Shon RaeTug of water: Plan restores flows to Upper Deschutes but may fall short for threatened species
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Feds OK Central Oregon Irrigation District $30 million canal-piping project


Water savings will pass to North Unit Irrigation District

REDMOND, Ore. (KTVZ) — Plans to modernize a portion of Central Oregon Irrigation District’s irrigation infrastructure by piping canals in the Redmond area have been approved by a federal agency to move forward into construction.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has released a Final Watershed Plan-Environmental Assessment and a Finding of No Significant Impact for the Central Oregon Irrigation District’s Smith Rock-King Way Infrastructure Modernization Project.

NRCS said it has determined that the project will not cause significant local, regional or national impacts to the environment.

The project is a joint effort among NRCS, Central Oregon Irrigation District, the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, Farmers Conservation Alliance, Energy Trust of Oregon and in coordination with other agencies, stakeholders, and the public.

With a completed environmental assessment in place, the project is now eligible for federal funding and may move forward into construction.

The EA and other supporting documents for this project are available at

Work on the more than $30 million Pilot Butte Canal project is expected to start in 2020, with the first phase scheduled to be completed in 2022, according to a COID news release earlier this year.

The purpose of the project is to improve water conservation in 7.9 miles of District-owned infrastructure, improve water delivery reliability to District patrons within the project area, and improve public safety on up to approximately 7.9 miles of District-owned canal and laterals.

By converting open-ditch canals into underground, closed-piped systems, the project will reduce water loss from seepage by an estimated 29.4 cubic feet per second, or 9,392 acre-feet annually.

Water saved from the project will pass to North Unit Irrigation District during the irrigation season for agricultural use.

In return, North Unit Irrigation District will release an equal volume of water into the Deschutes River from Wickiup Reservoir, protecting the water through instream leases in perpetuity during the winter for instream flows when it is needed most for fish and aquatic species.

The project may be partially funded through the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations Program, administered by NRCS and authorized by Public Law 83-566.

Through this program, NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to local organizations (project sponsors) for planning and carrying out projects that help solve natural resource and related economic problems in a specific watershed.

These issues can include watershed protection, flood prevention, erosion and sediment control, water supply, water quality, fish and wildlife habitat enhancement, and wetlands creation.

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

Shon RaeFeds OK Central Oregon Irrigation District $30 million canal-piping project
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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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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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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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