Four water projects in Oregon have won nearly $6.3 million from state regulators, though only $5.1 million is available on hand to spend.
The $1.2 million shortfall is expected to be covered by the sale of $15 million in lottery bonds in 2019, which was approved by Oregon lawmakers earlier this year.
Three of the projects approved by the Oregon Water Resources Commission on Dec. 7 involve irrigation piping, while one aims to build a fish ladder to allow stream access past a hydroelectric dam.
Because the projects will take time to plan and build — and developers have access to matching funds from other sources — officials with the Oregon Water Resources Department felt confident in approving all four.
Members of the commission, which oversees the agency, debated the wisdom of allocating more money for projects than was readily available in Oregon’s water supply development fund, which lawmakers authorized in 2013.
Commissioner Carol Whipple, a rancher near Elkton, Ore., initially said she’d feel more comfortable approving the top-ranked three projects rather than all four.
However, the manager of the Middle Fork Irrigation District, Craig DeHart, said he’d be willing to wait until 2019 to seek reimbursement for the district’s pipeline project, which was the lowest-ranked of the four recommended by OWRD officials.
Fully allocating available money also sends a message to lawmakers about the strong demand for water supply funding, said April Snell, executive director of the Oregon Water Resources Congress.
In the end, the seven commissioners voted unanimously to approve all four projects:
• North Fork Sprague conservation piping: Trout Unlimited, a conservation group, was approved to receive $2.7 million for the project, which will cost $3.9 million in full to replace an irrigation canal with a pipe.
Currently, the ditch loses 35 percent of the water it conveys to seepage. About 90 percent of the water saved by the project will be dedicated to instream flows in the North Fork Sprague River within the Klamath Basin.
More than 3,000 acres will be served by the pipeline, which create enough water pressure to allow farmers to convert to sprinklers from flood irrigation. However, those changes aren’t included in the project’s cost.
• Powder Valley Connector: The Powder Valley Water Control District was approved to receive about $1 million of the total $1.4 million needed to replace an irrigation ditch with a pipe, conserving about 1,350 acre-feet of water that will instead remain in the Wolf Creek Reservoir. The system serves 17 farms that cultivate roughly 6,800 acres in Northeast Oregon.
While the project is expected to reap ecological benefits by storing more water in the reservoir, it was opposed by the WaterWatch of Oregon environmental group because the district isn’t formally allocating the water to instream flows. However, the Oregon Water Resources Department said this factor was taken into account in the review process and doesn’t disqualify the project from funding.
• Opal Springs fish passage: The Deschutes Valley Water District was awarded $1.5 million toward the $10.7 million cost of building a fish ladder to open up 100 miles of habitat for salmon and steelhead upstream of the Opal Springs hydroelectric facility in Central Oregon.
The environmental benefits of the fish ladder would qualify the facility for certification by the Low Impact Hydro Institute, allowing for the sale of renewable energy credits.
• Coe Branch pipeline: The Middle Fork Irrigation District will obtain more than $900,000 to build a pipeline from a stream to a sediment settling pond, which will cost $1.7 million in total. The district, which primarily serves orchards in the Hood River Valley, draws water from the Coe Branch, a tributary of the Middle Fork Hood River that’s high in sediment.
By allowing the sediment to settle in the pond, it won’t plug up highly efficient drip irrigation systems. Farmers who already have such systems wouldn’t have to “backflush” them out as often — saving water — and other growers would be more likely to invest in drip irrigation.
At this point, six farms with 300 acres have committed to making irrigation efficiency improvements as part of the project. The district expects the project will eventually spur similar investments by other growers in the full 6,300 acres served by the system.