SISTERS, Ore. — When Marc Thalacker first walked into Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Irrigation District Office in 1988, he was taken aback.
The dilapidated office had no running water, a sputtering oil stove and an outhouse. The office served a district with a canal system so old it had been built by mule-drag.
“It was a real wild west show,” said Thalacker.
His big laugh filled the room.
Many years, according to district records, 50% of the water in the canals and laterals was lost to seepage and evaporation, farmers received only half their allotted water and the local creek was dried, stranding fish.
“I was overwhelmed with what I was looking at,” said Thalacker.
He had come to the office to volunteer. Thalacker was a new farmer — he and his now ex-wife had bought 400 acres near Sisters that year to raise cattle and grow crops. He wanted to understand more about the local water system and how to make it better.
Making it better is precisely what he did.
In the past 24 years since Thalacker moved into the role of district manager in 1997, Three Sisters Irrigation District, or TSID, has been transformed through modernization.
Today, 60 of the district’s 64 miles of canal are piped with high-density polyethylene plastic, the last four miles soon to be completed. TSID has also installed a modern fish screen and built fish-friendly hydropower, a long-term revenue source for the district.
The district’s farmers now save more than $660,000 in annual pumping bills, have high-efficiency sprinklers and more reliable water supplies — translating into higher crop yields.
TSID has spent $46 million to date on modernization, much of which was grant money. The district has $4 million in debt, which it pays off in part using the $150,000 to $200,000 of revenue generated annually from hydropower.
Thalacker’s passion, water experts say, has transformed TSID into one of the top four most modernized of Oregon’s approximately 40 irrigation districts.
“My gosh, if you know Marc (Thalacker), you know he’s an entity unto himself. The things he’s done for that small district are larger-than-life,” said Mark Theetge, CEO of a pipe manufacturing company and a longtime friend.
State water experts say the success TSID has achieved is replicable, even for smaller districts with limited resources. Thalacker agrees, which is why he leads regular tours and training sessions about irrigation modernization to help farmers and other water managers.
Federal money, via the recently passed infrastructure package and other legislation, will soon be on its way to fund irrigation modernization projects nationwide. Experts encourage farmers and water managers to learn from TSID’s example about barriers to modernization and how to overcome them. Financial help is on the way, they say, so get ready.
Know the numbers
Water experts say the first common barrier to modernization is a lack of organized data.
“Before you do any new projects, you have to know what your district already has. Do you know how many miles of canal you’ve got? Do you know how many acres there are?” said Julie O’Shea, executive director of the Farmers Conservation Alliance, a nonprofit that helps modernize Western water systems to benefit both agriculture and the environment.
O’Shea was in TSID’s Office, along for one of Thalacker’s tours.
Thalacker agreed that “quantifying everything” is the first step toward modernization. Many of his earliest failures and slowdowns, he said, were tied to not having an organized data set.
When Thalacker and his then-wife first arrived to volunteer for the district, they set up computer programs, digitized files and remapped the district.
O’Shea, of the nonprofit, said what Thalacker experienced in the 1980s is still the reality for many districts today.
“Some people still don’t have the info on a computer,” said O’Shea. “Some districts and councils are still run entirely or in part by volunteer farmers using paper ledgers.”
O’Shea said the Farmers Conservation Alliance can point districts to funding sources that can potentially help them boost staffing capacity and improve technical equipment for data collection — for example, by funding GIS, or Geographic Information System mapping.
“You’re trying to put yourself in a position so that when those bigger funding opportunities for projects come through, you have the data and you’re ready for them,” she said.
Experts say the second major barrier to success is disagreement among board members.
Irrigation district boards are often comprised of local farmers who disagree on how to manage their watersheds: “One person wants to pipe the south, another wants the north done.”
Ron Alvarado, state conservationist for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said irrigation districts sometimes miss out on opportunities because, when the funding comes along, the board doesn’t have a plan in advance.
“The board needs to be on board,” Alvarado said, and grinned.
O’Shea, of the nonprofit, agreed.
“Often, board members will say, ‘If we just had money.’ But when the money comes near, it turns out each person on the board has a different interpretation of where that money will go. So, how do we have those conversations and make compromises earlier?” she said.
At the Three Sisters District, Thalacker said he has learned that his dreams for the district flop if stakeholders aren’t working in concert.
Farmers who serve on boards aren’t the only ones who can help propel modernization forward.
April Snell, executive director of Oregon Water Resources Congress, said irrigation districts have recently experienced significant turnover as several longtime leaders have retired and new managers have replaced them. Water experts say these new public servants will need the support and expertise of local farmers.
Thalacker said another potential barrier to modernization is community pushback.
There’s no easy solution, Thalacker said, but knowing the local culture and incorporating community feedback early on can prevent headaches later.
O’Shea, of the nonprofit, said it’s important to track how communities feel about projects early on and be willing to adapt.
“For example, if people in the community don’t want a particular section piped, don’t wait until you’re in the middle of the watershed plan process to find that out. Find out early on, then start into the planning once you know the community and have consensus,” said O’Shea.
Turn foes into allies
Similarly, water experts say the best plans can fail if a proposed project faces opposition from advocacy groups.
Locals say much of Thalacker’s success in modernizing his district can be attributed to his willingness to work with people from a variety of perspectives.
“I always say, ‘Don’t be a litigator, be an irrigator,’” said Thalacker.
He grinned his signature sideways grin.
There are times when fighting in court is the only option, he said, such as if the Center for Biological Diversity sues your district and “there’s nothing you can do but fight it.”
But don’t look at people as rivals unless they give you no other choice, Thalacker said. Seek common ground.
“Where’s the win-win?” he said.
Thalacker plays golf with local tribal members, shares dinners with environmentalists and attends conservation conferences.
He said that through the decades, he has learned to include these groups in early conversations about projects in his district. From his own account — and confirmed by public records — striking agreements with these groups has been far from easy, but Thalacker said it’s been worth it.
Piping, for example, is sometimes opposed by environmental groups who say open canals are needed to provide wildlife with a water source. But by including environmental groups in conversations, Thalacker has been able to find alternative methods for watering wildlife, such as diverting piped water to ponds.
During Thalacker’s tenure, Three Sisters Irrigation District has gone from 40 to 120 ponds, and some farmers even get paid to flood-irrigate.
“Conservation groups can really help you out financially,” said Thalacker.
Alvarado of NRCS agreed.
“Sometimes Ducks Unlimited or Audubon can step in and cause challenges and barriers. But if you have them at the table from the start and have them buy into the project, they can be huge advocates. Don’t miss that opportunity,” said Alvarado.
Make a plan
Once a district has reached consensus and has data, it’s time for the big leap: creating a watershed plan.
A watershed, also called a drainage basin or catchment, is an area that drains all the streams, snowmelt and rainfall to common outflow points, such as reservoirs, bays and the ocean. A watershed plan is a strategy to manage the water in a particular basin.
In the coming months and years, billions of dollars earmarked for irrigation modernization will head to the Western U.S. by way of Congress’ recently passed infrastructure package. Most of those dollars, experts say, will go to districts that are ready with clear watershed plans.
Thalacker said that when he first started volunteering for Three Sisters Irrigation District, the previous leader thought putting together a watershed plan would be a waste of time.
“I said, ‘Oh, please, please, please, please let me do a watershed plan,’” said Thalacker. “He finally gave me the go-ahead, but he said good luck getting any money.”
It did, in fact, take significant planning before Thalacker’s efforts paid off. But O’Shea of the Conservation Alliance nonprofit said one of the reasons TSID has received so much federal and state funding is Thalacker had a watershed plan in place for when the right opportunities opened up.
Today, support is available for districts that need help putting together a watershed plan.
The Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act, or PL-566, authorizes NRCS to help local organizations — including soil and water conservation districts, watershed councils and irrigation districts — create watershed plans. PL-566 both assists with planning and covers 75% of mainline infrastructure costs.
“This is a great program. There’s nothing else like this,” said O’Shea of the Farmers Conservation Alliance.
Alvarado of NRCS said PL-566 is about to get an injection of money from the infrastructure package, meaning districts can get even more support for watershed planning.
Alvarado, O’Shea and Thalacker encourage districts to take advantage of PL-566.
Outside the box
One of Thalacker’s claims to success, experts say, is that he isn’t afraid to try innovative, outside-the-box projects to modernize his district, including on-farm, fish screen and hydropower projects.
Early on, Thalacker said he realized that the district’s challenges couldn’t all be solved at district level. Many projects, he realized, would need to be done on the farms.
One of his early experiments was on his farm, where he ripped out 6,000 feet of tar-wrapped, rusted steel and replaced it with 10,000 feet of high-density polyethylene pipeline. The installation cut in half the number of hours he had to spend each week moving irrigation lines.
“Modernization changes things,” said Thalacker.
After recognizing on-farm potential, Thalacker helped hundreds of farmers in his district secure grants and loans for projects on their properties. For example, he helped 150 of the 190 farmers in his district implement projects under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP.
In another innovative move, TSID installed a “Farmers Screen,” a horizontal, passive fish screen that allows farmers to divert water from rivers and streams without harming fish or trapping debris. The screen was invented by farmers in the Hood River Basin and is sold by the Farmers Conservation Alliance.
Finally, TSID has innovated by getting into the power business.
In 2014, the district installed a hydroelectric turbine that generates more than 3 million kilowatt-hours a year, enough to power 275 homes. Money generated from selling the electricity to the local utility helps pay for the district’s modernization projects.
More recently, Thalacker has been experimenting with micro-hydropower projects, using smaller-scale “micro” turbines suitable for on-farm use. Thalacker’s idea is that a farm’s water could run through a micro-turbine, generating clean energy, before being used to irrigate a field.
Tide is turning
Although modernizing Oregon’s archaic irrigation infrastructure won’t be easy, Thalacker said he believes it’s possible. And with federal dollars on the way, he said irrigation districts should get ready.
“Modernization is coming,” he said. “This is the perfect time to get on board. The tide has turned.”