The Future of the American West Is in Central Oregon

Analysis by Francis Wilkinson | Bloomberg
August 28, 2022 

The Future of the American West Is in Central Oregon

Central Oregon is not the Pacific Northwest. The landscape bears little resemblance to the green and piney coast; there are no rainforests. The region looks more like dusty Nevada. In Portland, on the west side of the Cascade range, it rains three feet per year. On the east side, in Bend, annual rainfall is about one foot, slightly less than the historical average for Los Angeles. This year, like last, water is particularly scarce. Almost two-thirds of the state is in drought.

Central Oregon is part of the American West, what John Wesley Powell called the “arid region” of the US. Historically parched, warped by the occasional deluge, the West is experiencing a drought that may be the worst in 1,200 years. On the August days when I visited irrigation districts near Bend, the fast-growing seat of Deschutes County, the temperature peaked at about 100 degrees. The air had a monotonous consistency, as though any capacity for variation had been sucked dry along with the last vestige of moisture.

In his classic 1986 book on the West, “Cadillac Desert,” Marc Reisner writes that without “a century and a half of messianic effort” to manipulate the flow of water, “the West as we know it would not exist.” Public investment in the region has been largely devoted to managing water, with the goal of manufacturing more habitable land with the potential for crops and livestock. Some of those public projects are astonishingly large; the Hoover Dam uses enough concrete to run a two-lane road, 8 inches thick, from New York to San Francisco. Others are quite modest. But they can mean the difference between local farmers thriving or failing.

Marc Thalacker, manager of the Three Sisters Irrigation District near Bend, has spent much of the past two decades re-engineering a creek. The degree of difficulty involved in altering Whychus Creek, a tributary of the Deschutes River and a source of water for the 200 farms in his district, is a reflection of the visceral stakes, and political complexity, of water in the West. To see his project through, Thalacker needed the skills of an engineer, fundraiser, politician and lobbyist.

Thalacker was raised in suburban New York and later worked in Southern California for a clothing company. After growing disenchanted with California, in 1988 Thalacker and his wife bought a 400-acre ranch, with 200 irrigated acres, and moved to Central Oregon near the small farm then owned by his in-laws.

“I spent the first 10 years killing myself, learning,” Thalacker said. “We raised 200 acres of hay. We had an Arctic freeze the first year, no water for 30 days. I learned how to be a plumber, a welder, an electrician. I built a couple houses.” In 1997, Thalacker took over as manager of Three Sisters, his local water district. There was not great competition for the job.

Irrigation districts are quasi-governmental corporations, subject to state oversight, that deliver water to private “patrons.” The districts can issue bonds to help finance reservoirs and other improvements. Irrigated acreage nationwide has grown from less than 3 million acres in 1890 to more than 58 million acres in 2017. Almost two-thirds of the agriculture in Oregon receives water through an irrigation district. Three Sisters, which has an elected three-person board of directors, provides irrigation water to 7,500 acres of ranches and farms in the Deschutes basin.

Thalacker flings acronyms for government programs and agencies like a veteran Washington bureaucrat, crediting “ARRA” (the 2009 stimulus law, officially called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) for providing a crucial infrastructure boost to his district. He talks of projected changes to the House Committee on Appropriations after this fall’s elections like a baseball fan weighing the merits of a star pitcher’s pending trade. He cites 28 different official “partners and funders” on the Three Sisters irrigation project, from government agencies to environmental groups and private foundations.

Thalacker also speaks rapturously of the properties of high-density polyethylene piping, miles of which he has buried across his district to carry water from the creek to farms. “High density polyethylene is amazing stuff,” he said. “It’s got a hundred- to a thousand-year shelf-life. And you can bend it through S turns.”

In and around the little town of Sisters, Oregon, where Thalacker’s water district has its small headquarters, you can see the results. Thalacker is nearing the promised land, having completed 62 fluid miles of a 65-mile engineering marathon. “Here we are in this horrible drought,” he said, “where we’ve got [neighboring] Arnold Irrigation District already shut down, and we’re delivering 70% of our water right now and it’s almost mid-August. It’s just unprecedented.”

What Thalacker is saying, more or less, is that he has conjured water from a stone. Except in the case of the Three Sisters Irrigation District, it is water from 54-inch high-density polyethylene pipes purchased from a factory in Arizona.

The West has high elevations. Water flows downhill. If you marry those two elementary facts, and run them through a pipe, it’s possible not only to deliver water more efficiently but also to generate a little clean energy.

Energy Trust of Oregon is a nonprofit devoted to supporting energy efficiency and renewable energy. It’s funded by a fee paid by the customers of five utilities that operate in Oregon and Washington, and it’s overseen by the Oregon Public Utility Commission. It’s also a power player, with a sprawling portfolio and a budget to match: $215 million last year, of which about 10% was devoted to renewables. Since 2002, the trust has invested $2.4 billion in energy projects large and small.

An interest in small-scale hydropower led Energy Trust to local irrigation districts. “These aren’t dams,” said Dave Moldal, a senior program manager in the renewable sector. “These are in-conduit, in-pipe, hydropower.”

In effect, if you can funnel enough water volume into a pipe, and then run that pipe into a smaller pipe, thereby increasing the water pressure inside, and direct the entire project downhill, generating even more pressure, you can deliver pressurized water to farms, eliminating the need for electricity-gobbling water pumps. If the details are right, you can also place a small turbine along the way and produce a modest amount of hydropower, which you can sell back to a utility to help pay for the infrastructure upgrade. Thalacker projects that his district’s three mini hydro plants will generate at least $200,000 annually when all are operational next year.

“We see tremendous hydropower potential from modernized irrigation districts,” Modal said. The trust has helped or is helping modernize 26 irrigation districts in Oregon, at a cost of about $14 million. “It’s early-stage capital, critical, that the irrigation districts just don’t have,” he said. Central Oregon Irrigation District, the largest of the local districts being piped, is hoping to generate 20 megawatts of hydropower in-conduit.

To help it reach irrigation districts around the state, Energy Trust contracted in 2015 with Farmers Conservation Alliance, a 501(c)3 group that pursues “water management solutions that benefit both agriculture and the environment.” FCA provides technical expertise to the districts, which are generally short of both money and labor and are often encumbered by significant debt as well.

The Three Sisters district’s annual budget, for example, is $350,000. Total capital costs of its irrigation upgrades over the years come to around $50 million. There is simply no way to generate that level of investment from that kind of budget without a lot of outside assistance.

FCA, based in Hood River, Oregon, helps irrigation districts file a watershed plan, including a cost/benefit analysis, which is necessary to seek federal funding under the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act. After helping districts manage environmental and technical assessments, and access funds, FCA helps them follow through on upgrades. The goal is to change a district’s water delivery system from open ditches and canals, many of which date to the turn of the 20th century, to enclosed, pressurized (and potentially profitable) pipes.

Water is obviously scarce now, and with climate change bearing down, there is a growing recognition that it may be for years to come. The stress of that realization falls especially hard on farm families. “You think about national, mental instability right now,” said Julie Davies O’Shea, executive director of FCA. In addition to worries about Covid, she said, “imagine if you weren’t sure if you were going to get water to your house.”

Besides Oregon, FCA works in California, Colorado, Montana and Nevada — about 40 districts in all. But the group’s roots are in what O’Shea calls the “fish versus farm” battles that pitted Oregon environmentalists against farmers, each arguing over rivers that couldn’t supply enough water to support both fish and agriculture. “It was very adversarial back then,” she said.

To help ease the conflict, in 2005 FCA began marketing a fish screen to prevent fish from being diverted into farm irrigation channels. At the point where water is diverted for agricultural use, the device redirects fish back into the river or stream from which they came. I took a long hard look at Marc Thalacker’s fish screen from a narrow walkway above. But I can’t say I saw much — just a hazy underwater detour that sends fish from a concrete diversion channel through a polyethylene speedway back to the Whychus Creek.

Ultimately, a fish screen only works if there is enough clean water left in the stream, after the farmers have taken their share, for fish to swim and spawn. Western agriculture has been devastating to chinook salmon, bull trout, steelhead trout and other members of the endangered species list. One of the goals of irrigation modernization is to leave not only fish in the stream, but enough water in the stream for the fish to survive.

I am standing in a field of vegetables, getting intermittently soaked by the rotating nozzle of a sprinkler. My guide on this tour of Rainshadow Organics farm is standing tall and sun-drenched in the same sprinkler’s path, unbudging, increasingly soggy and seemingly oblivious. Most of the farm is irrigated by drip lines, which target plants with precision. But not this stretch. So I continue posing questions, and receiving answers, between regular dousings. Once we pass through the sprinkler zone, it takes only minutes for the water on my clothes and skin to evaporate. The temperature is 98 degrees and heading higher.

Sarahlee Lawrence, 40, grew up on this Oregon farm, where her parents raised hay and a fair amount of dust. Throughout her college education, a subsequent master’s program in environmental science and writing, and various adventure tours as a river guide, Lawrence said she harbored no desire to return home to the farm. But then her father contemplated selling the land, and she read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” a cultural landmark on food production and consumption. She moved back.

Rainshadow now encompasses 27 irrigated acres producing about $300,000 worth of crops annually. “I never had a business plan,” said Lawrence, who is also the author of an acclaimed memoir. What she has instead is an organic showcase featuring everything from heritage hens and plump pigs to kale, beans and kohlrabi. She grows more than 50 varieties of vegetables. Her business is about 30% wholesale, selling to restaurants and markets, and 70% direct to consumer. She does two or three farm-to-table events at the farm weekly and hosts some weddings.

In 2010, her first season back on the farm, Lawrence was getting her water from a canal, which ran to a ditch, which fed a small pond. She pumped water out of the pond to a wheel line that irrigated her fields.

In addition to electricity costs for pumping, Lawrence faced environmental costs. Open canals and ditches collect runoff, distributing chemical fertilizers used by other farms. They also transport weed seeds all down the line, spreading nuisances to every farm that draws water. And because they’re prone to algae and other harmful growth, irrigation districts often spend thousands to ply canals with chemicals to kill the blooms. It’s hard to run an organic farm. It’s harder still when your water is laced with chemicals.

Despite a variety of costly problems stemming from flood irrigation, not everyone in the Three Sisters district was in favor of piping. In the early days, when funds were low and proof of concept less sure, the irrigation project required in-kind contributions from farmers in the form of labor. Lawrence, whose farm is in the Lower Bridge subdistrict of Three Sisters, teamed up with a septuagenarian neighbor to work a front loader, weld and lay pipe. Meanwhile, some locals were surprisingly aggressive in their efforts to stop it.

“It was like the Wild West,” Lawrence said, recalling one neighbor’s effort to physically block the pipe installation. “There were people that did not want the pressurized water. They didn’t want to pipe their ditches because ditches are flowing in the summer, and while it’s not like living on an actual river, it’s a seasonal stream. There’s all this ambiance.”

The pipeline exploited a 400-foot drop in elevation from the reservoir to the terminus, delivering pressurized water to farms. District-wide, Thalacker said, piping saves about $700,000 in electricity costs. By containing the water in pipes, the district was able to increase the water supply, extend the growing season and reduce water use by a third or more. The saved water now finds its way back to the creek, which both federal and state agencies encourage in return for their support. It also reduces the stress on groundwater: Farms that previously drew on wells to supplement their allotments can now afford to leave more well water in the aquifer.

Some farmers objected to returning so much water to the creek, although the infusion has given the fish a fighting chance. Still others simply wanted to do things the way they always had. Meanwhile, a few landowners wanted to be paid to have the new pipeline cross beneath their property in lieu of the open canal.

The conflict eventually produced lawsuits, but not a work stoppage. “We kept moving, and while we were building, they were suing us,” said Thalacker. The irrigation district ultimately prevailed in court.

Lawrence said the pressurized water deliveries now save her several thousand dollars a year in electricity costs. “The amount of money you spend pumping and managing your pond, and the logistics of irrigating, is just a lot,” she said. “It’s an incredible thing to be able to turn on pretty clean pressurized water as an organic farm.”

Water management has always been essential to the West. As a US government history of dam building notes: “With much surface water originating either as seasonal snowmelt or infrequent torrential rainstorms, the ability to support widespread agriculture — as well as mining, municipal growth, and hydroelectric power development — has by necessity become dependent on artificial means of controlling water.”

Those artificial means have rendered desert mirages, such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, real. They have produced thousands of dams, reservoirs and viaducts irrigating farms and ranches that would otherwise shrivel and die. The Colorado River alone is bedecked with 15 dams to engineer water and generate electricity.

Yet the river’s water allotments were oversold from the start. In a good year, the Colorado comes up short of ever-expanding human demand. This year, persistently high heat and lack of precipitation have put the river at risk of “catastrophic collapse,” according to the US Department of Interior.

Water rights in the Deschutes River basin date from the turn of the 20th century, an era when the US population was less than one quarter of what it is today. Around Bend, irrigation districts rely on water rights attained in 1899, 1900, 1905 — when the population of Oregon, now more than 4 million, was a little over 400,000.

“There are seven irrigation districts that pull water off the Deschutes,” said Steve Johnson, manager of the Arnold Irrigation District in Bend. “We’re 1905.” That means the district gets water only after farms in nearby districts, with rights attained in 1899 and 1900, use up their allotments. What the Arnold district’s 1905 rights amounted to on Aug. 9, when I joined Johnson for a tour, was a dry bed of caked dirt and rock in a canal.

“When the water rights were given out here, it was a wet cycle, kind of like when they built Lake Mead and everything else,” Johnson said. “You know, the mindset was ‘man over nature,’ with no regard for environmental flows. I mean, they gave out more water than the river could even naturally provide.”

There used to be enough water for six of the seven irrigation districts to get their allotted shares, Johnson said. But as the region grows hotter and drier, that’s no longer the case. “Now you’re in a situation where there isn’t enough to go around,” Johnson said. “So people get shut off.”

Johnson previously managed the Central Oregon Irrigation District, which was on the front end of the region’s irrigation modernization. There, he worked with Energy Trust of Oregon and other funders, including a trust connected to a confederation of local tribes, to channel pressurized, piped water through a 5-megawatt in-conduit hydropower turbine. The Arnold district, however, is missing a crucial ingredient that contributed to COID’s success: gravity.

“This district does not have significant elevation drop,” Johnson said. “It only drops 40 feet in 12 miles of main canal. So, we’ll realize a little bit of pressure that will help the deliveries to the farmers. But, basically, we need the pipe to conserve the water.”

Because open canals lose anywhere from 40% to 60% in seepage, farms only receive about half the total water that is diverted from the source. As chronic drought drains supplies, the Arnold district has begun running dry earlier each summer. “Three years in a row now we’ve had to turn off our irrigation season early because our legal supply of water has run out,” Johnson said. “We turned off on July 23rd this year. It was July 31st last year. It was August 29th the year before. This is the earliest we’ve had to turn off in 117 years.”

Piping the Arnold district’s canals won’t generate power, but it would keep the water flowing longer. “If our main canal had been piped last year, instead of having to turn off in July, we would’ve been able to get water into September,” Johnson said. “The same for this year. It’s kind of simple math.”

Reduced water supplies mean the Arnold district’s farmers earn less money, and return less money to the local economy. “Because the drought has decreased the water supply, and we can’t provide water through the whole irrigation season, people can’t raise enough hay or crops to make a living or feed their animals,” he said. “I’ve already talked to two guys this year who are selling their farms to get out of Arnold to move into Central Oregon Irrigation District, where they’re going to be able to have a water supply. People are selling because they don’t have enough water to utilize their land.”

The water supply is not only shrinking, it’s also being delivered earlier. “Snow pack melts, except at real high elevations, and that supplies water to the streams,” Michael Campana, a hydrologist at Oregon State University, told me. But climate change, he said, is starting to trigger snow melt earlier in the year. The result is that water reaches streams before either farms or spawning fish are ready to make full use of it. New water storage techniques may become necessary, along with more efficient delivery.

In California, a robust debate is under way about what types of crops should be raised in an arid climate with large urban populations and declining water supplies. Carrot seed, hay, alfalfa, hemp and cattle are currently prominent in Central Oregon. Researchers at Oregon State University and elsewhere are exploring alternate crops, some of which could potentially be raised during alternate growing seasons.

There is also the possibility of conserving water by paying farmers in parched terrain to stop farming altogether. Over beers at a local hangout, Marc Thalacker had a visceral response to that proposal, speaking with an edge I hadn’t heard before. It is an “actual, established fact,” he said, that the world must double its food supply by 2050. “I don’t think America is ready for empty shelves.”

Central Oregon is making progress, but it’s still not fully piped. It has taken years of effort by small irrigation districts with limited resources to get this far. The Inflation Reduction Act that President Joe Biden signed into law in August should help. The bill includes $4.6 billion to support drought adaptation in agricultural regions, and another $18 billion for the Department of Agriculture’s conservation programs, which can be used for irrigation modernization.

The engineering of water is evolving from preoccupation to obsession in much of the West. But even in the best-case scenario, it’s highly unlikely that water will become more plentiful anytime soon. “This is the West,” said Steve Johnson. “Water in the West is always an issue.”

Shon RaeThe Future of the American West Is in Central Oregon

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