Irrigation

Central Oregon irrigation districts will modernize their facilities with help from the federal government.

Two more irrigation districts in Central Oregon are taking the first steps toward modernizing aging infrastructure to conserve water, reduce energy costs and protect endangered species in the Deschutes River Basin, including the Oregon spotted frog.

The Ochoco and North Unit irrigation districts announced they are in the process of developing watershed plans with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farmers Conservation Alliance, which will include projects to boost efficiency and leave more water in-stream for frogs and fish.

Projects might include piping leaky irrigation canals, which can save billions of gallons of water every year.

The Ochoco Irrigation District, based in Prineville, Ore., provides water to 20,062 acres of irrigated land in Crook County. The North Unit Irrigation District is based in Madras, Ore., and covers 59,000 irrigated acres in the region.

Both districts are part of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, along with six others, collectively serving over 150,000 acres.

Efforts to revamp irrigation systems in the basin go back to 2015, when environmental groups sued to protect spotted frog habitat. As part of a settlement agreement, irrigation districts agreed to provide more water in streams and rivers.

Around the same time, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and former Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., worked together to reauthorize the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program, which authorizes federal dollars for modernizing irrigation.

Lawmakers have appropriated $175 million for the program this year, which is an increase over $150 million in previous years. Merkley, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, was able to set aside $35 million for Oregon projects — up from $25 million.

But to access the money, districts must first complete individual watershed plans that have to be approved by the NRCS. Two districts in Central Oregon, the Tumalo and Swalley irrigation districts, have already completed that step and begun piping their canals.

The Ochoco and North Unit districts appear to be next in line. The Ochoco Irrigation District held a public scoping meeting Sept. 18 in Prineville to hear from irrigators, and the North Unit district will hold its scoping meeting Oct. 21 from 6:30-7:30 p.m. at the  Jefferson County Library Rodriguez Annex Building in Madras.

The Farmers Conservation Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving irrigation efficiency, is working with the districts to provide technical assistance on the watershed plans.

Margi Hoffman, director of strategic operations for the alliance, said modernizing these irrigation districts is one of the single best ways to secure agricultural production, while increasing environmental resilience.

"We're able to provide patrons with the water that they need to continue their way of life and provide food security," Hoffman said. "At the same time, we're able to conserve a lot of water that can be protected in-stream."

Several projects are already paying dividends in the basin. By piping 36% of canals and laterals, the Swalley Irrigation District in Bend has been able to return 9.2 billion gallons of water to the Deschutes River each year.

The Tumalo Irrigation District north of Bend also plans to finish piping 65 miles of the canals and laterals, saving 4.9 billion gallons of water annually.

Public comments for the Ochoco Irrigation District watershed plan will be accepted through Oct. 18, and through Nov. 21 for the North Unit Irrigation District watershed plan. The NRCS will then issue draft environmental reports for each, which will go through a second round of public feedback before they are finalized and approved.

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