DRIGGS, Idaho — Stacy Lerwill’s failed steel mainline has forced him to experiment with dryland farming in a region where irrigation is regarded as a necessity. As a result, his malt barley yields dropped by as much as 90 percent.
Nine years ago, the Tetonia, Idaho, farmer replaced a worn, steel mainline system with plastic pipe, which doesn’t rust and saves power due to reduced friction. However, he lacked the resources to upgrade another steel mainline, which continued springing leaks for a few more years until pressure was insufficient for water to reach a 100-acre grain field.
Growers throughout Idaho’s Teton Valley share Lerwill’s dilemma. They have 50-year-old metal irrigation mainlines that leak and are no longer efficient, small acreages and scant resources for costly upgrades, and lenders regard buried pipes as poor collateral. Federal assistance is largely inaccessible, as the rules of conservation programs tend to rank other types of projects higher.
Officials with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service say elsewhere in Idaho and in parts of Washington and Oregon, farmers with old irrigation pipes face the same challenges, buying time with Band-aid solutions such as welding metal patches and filling pinholes with screws.
Without irrigation, Lerwill has been averaging 10 bushels of malt barley per acre, compared with 75-100 bushels on his irrigated land.
“I was going to replace a little bit every year, but I haven’t had the time for the last two years,” Lerwill said, predicting it will take him three years to finish the project piecemeal. “As far as having valuable agricultural ground, without water it’s not.”
University of Idaho Extension irrigation specialist Howard Neibling has seen leaking metal mainlines throughout the state, including several cases in Minidoka County. When laid in proper bedding at a uniform grade, Neibling said modern plastic pipes have a long lifespan. Some of the metal pipes that remain in use now, however, resemble pin cushions, he said.
“As our water supply gets more scarce, we can’t afford the leaks we have in some of those systems,” Neibling said. “It’s not one of those (issues) that historically has caught the imagination of the funding sources, and now I think we need some programs to address this issue.”
‘You can stick your finger through it’
About a decade ago, Todd Dustin, who farms 500 acres west of Victor, Idaho, replaced a half-mile portion of a mainline installed in the early 1960s with high-density polyethylene.
Though he dug the trench himself, he still spent $30,000 on the replacement, and he believes costs have tripled since then.
“You can stick your finger through some of it,” Dustin said. “Probably, it would break every one of us to replace that stuff. It’s too much cost up front. We’re all small and don’t have thousands and thousands of acres.”
Jeff Hastings, who farms in the Driggs area, manages a pipeline association serving 1,200 acres.
His gravity-fed mainline, installed in 1960, has been retrofitted with valves so only individual branches are affected when new leaks surface on nearly a weekly basis and must be plugged.
“Sometimes you lose four or five days of watering by the time you get it drained,” Hastings said. “Some of (the pipe) is good, and some of it you can put your finger through.”
In the 1970s, Hastings said sacrificial anode bags — containing metals to attract electric charges in soil that would otherwise corrode pipe — were installed to protect the system. The bags, however, proved to be just a temporary fix. Like most of the valley’s original mainlines, the system also wasn’t installed with the proper bedding, increasing wear from large rocks.
Hastings now charges association members an annual assessment toward a repair fund.
“The money I have is not going to even come close to start replacing some of this stuff without some federal assistance,” he said. “Down the road, all of this old metal line is going to have to be replaced to keep going.”
Lindsay Markegard, district conservationist with the NRCS Driggs field office, fields weekly requests from growers seeking to replace metal mainline that has far exceeded its useful life.
It used to be that she could assist such projects through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which provides financial and technical aid to growers addressing natural resources concerns. Teton County prioritized mainline replacements with its EQIP funds.
But a few years ago, an EQIP revision made competition for funding regional rather than countywide. Teton County mainline replacements couldn’t compete with outside projects, such as conversions from flood irrigation to sprinklers.
Markegard and her staff intend to investigate the possibility of a special state or regional program to give mainline projects a greater chance of success.
Bruce Sandoval, Idaho’s NRCS conservation engineer, sees opportunity if growers and officials at the grassroots level voice the concern to local working groups, who would then make a case to state leaders.
“If there’s a big enough problem, maybe we can create a special pot of money. If there is both a focused area and resource concern, there might be a potential for some sort of special projects,” Sandoval said.
When Sandoval worked on his own family farm in Bingham County, the preferred method of fixing a leaky, metal mainline was jamming wood in holes.
“It would get wet and swell, and sometimes it would stay,” Sandoval said. “The second level for us was old inner tubes.”
Sandoval’s father and uncle upgraded to plastic in 2000, when they also installed center pivots. Sandoval said mainline replacements have been common in Bingham and Power counties, but those growers raise large acreages of cash crops, such as sugar beets and potatoes, and the upgrades claim a smaller percentage of their total income.
Tetonia, Idaho, grower Smoky Gould conducted an energy audit of a farm he bought in 2013 and found the old, steel mainline leaked 900 gallons a minute.
The losses were so substantial his request for mainline replacement assistance scored high in terms of water conservation, soil erosion prevention and power savings.
“It was really rusted and corroded inside. Some of the weaker places you could tap with a bulking hammer, and it would go right through it,” Gould said.
Gould invested $360,000 to replace 5 miles of mainline serving 1,800 irrigated acres. NRCS contributed $4,000 toward engineering costs. Bonneville Power pitched in $62,000 based on the power savings, and Fall River Electric contributed about $6,000 in reduced costs of pivot replacement nozzles.
An investment firm that partners with his farm provided the bulk of the project funding. Banks were reluctant to help, given the challenge of repossessing underground infrastructure.
Lenders willingly accept equipment titles as collateral, but Gould explained most growers use machinery for securing operating lines.
Doug Eck, a loan officer with Idaho Ag Credit in Rexburg, said most mainline replacements that have received loans in his area have also involved adding new pivots, which provide good collateral.
“We really do need something else behind (a loan) other than just underground mainline,” Eck said.
Trent Angell, a salesman with Golden West Irrigation and Equipment Co. in Rexburg, estimates the cost of replacing a foot of mainline with plastic ranges from $4 a foot for 6-inch-diameter pipe to $10 for 12-inch pipe. In gravelly soils, it costs an extra $2 per square foot to haul in sand as protective bedding. He said mainline replacements represent roughly 20 percent of his business, and most growers install 8- to 10-inch pipe.
“There’s quite a lot of mainline in the Teton Valley and Rexburg area that’s still steel,” Angel said. “I would say in the next five years, 10 at the most, it will all need to be replaced.”
He worked with a St. Anthony grower who recently finished replacing steel mainline in half-mile increments over the course of a decade. He advises growers it’s more efficient to replace large sections of pipe at once rather than bringing heavy equipment back each year to replace small segments.
“Do at least a quarter of a mile at a time instead of 50 feet here or 50 feet there,” Angell said.
Oregon and Washington
Marc Thalacker, manager of Three Sisters Irrigation District in Sisters, Ore., helped his irrigators replace their leaky metal and broken plastic lateral lines by pairing the projects with the piping of an unlined canal system.
Some of the growers have also seized the opportunity to install new pivots. In the past 11 years, the district’s program has piped more than 34 miles of canals, which had been losing 55 percent of irrigation water through seepage.
In addition to the 9 million kilowatt-hours of power saved by the project, the district has installed a turbine to generate 4 million kilowatt-hours of power to help with construction costs.
By devising a broad project with several partners, Thalacker said the district ensured it scored high enough for funding assistance. The district has benefited from financial help from several sources, including NRCS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
His irrigators also got a sizable contribution from an Oregon state program that provides financial assistance for projects that leave a portion of water savings in streams for the benefit of wildlife.
Thalacker said irrigators who are successful in competing for limited funding often broaden their appeal by applying in groups and touting any benefits their projects create for communities, wildlife and the environment. He believes growers can find strength in numbers by forming irrigation districts to back projects, and he advises adding hydropower is a good way to recover costs.
Bill Cronin, Oregon irrigation engineer with NRCS, said most of the state’s mainline replacements have taken place in central Oregon and the Bend area.
He believes mainline replacements are more palatable to funding partners when they’re attached to other projects that offer water savings, such as piping a canal.
Washington’s NRCS state engineer, Leigh Nelson, said steel mainline still remains in place on farm ground in Okanogan Valley and the Ellensburg area.
“We have the same issue. If you have a leaky pipeline, that doesn’t rank real high,” Nelson said, advising growers to work together and submit projects as a group to increase their odds of securing funding.