Irrigation modernization

From left, Ron Cochran, Tumalo Irrigation District board member, Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Matt Lohr, Tumalo District Manager Ken Rieck and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., cut the ribbon on a chunk of pipe that represents the district modernizing its aging system of open canals.

BEND, Ore. — What started as a conflict between farms and frogs in Central Oregon has resulted in an extensive effort to modernize the region’s aging irrigation systems.

Approximately 100 people gathered March 19 to celebrate a pair of project milestones at the Tumalo Irrigation District and Three Sisters Irrigation District, which are working to convert miles of leaky canals to more efficient pipes, conserving more water for fish and wildlife.

Funding comes in part from the newly reauthorized Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program, administered by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Both U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and NRCS Chief Matt Lohr were on hand to applaud the upgrades.

“Our collaborative work with irrigation partners in Central Oregon is a model for locally led watershed planning and implementation to modernize aging rural infrastructure,” Lohr said. “This type of work brings multiple benefits, including conserving water, reducing energy consumption, increasing irrigation delivery efficiency and improving in-stream habitat for threatened and endangered fish and wildlife.”

In 2015, environmental groups sued to protect the endangered Oregon spotted frog. As part of a settlement, five irrigation districts — including Tumalo — agreed to provide more water in streams and rivers for the species.

Around the same time, Merkley, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, joined with then-Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, of Mississippi, to revive the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program to provide federal dollars for modernizing irrigation.

To date, Merkley has secured $50 million for Oregon through the program, and expects $25 million more this fiscal year.

“I’ve worked with farmers across Oregon on water resource issues. I know how much rides on reliable water, and I understand their stress when its availability is in doubt,” Merkley said. “This important project will not only get more water to Central Oregon farmers, it will also help ensure habitats are protected and water is conserved.”

Before construction can happen on the ground, irrigation districts must complete detailed watershed plans to access the NRCS funding. Tumalo was the first to complete this step, partnering with groups including the Farm Conservation Alliance and Energy Trust of Oregon.

The Tumalo Irrigation District serves 670 patrons and 8,100 acres of farmland north of Bend. It plans to pipe more than 15 miles of ditches and laterals over the next two seasons.

District Manager Ken Rieck said the goal is to finish piping all 65 miles of the system, which would conserve an estimated 48 cubic feet per second of water. That translates into 4.9 billion gallons of water annually, which would be kept in Tumalo Creek — a tributary of the Deschutes River — to benefit fish and wildlife habitat.

“It’s been an interesting couple of years getting this far,” Rieck said. “I think we have the next decade laid out for us.”

In addition to water savings, the pipes also create a pressurized system that allows farmers to reduce or eliminate pumping, saving money on their electricity bills, Rieck said.

The water can also be used to create small-scale renewable hydro power, which Three Sisters Irrigation District has done on its system, selling the electricity to Pacific Power.

Three Sisters, which has already piped 59 of 64 miles of canals, cut the ribbon on its Watson Micro Hydro demonstration project, using four turbines to generate 200 kilowatt-hours of electricity.

“We started modernizing about 20 years ago,” said Mark Thalacker, district manager. “Back then we had to do it all on our own. Thanks to this new, collaborative approach, things can really start to move much more quickly.”

For the first time since the late 1800s the district has restored summertime flow in Whychus Creek for salmon and steelhead, Thalacker said.

Tumalo and Three Sisters are two of eight districts that make up the Deschutes Basin Board of Control. The entire group is working on watershed plans to modernize their own systems, with the Swalley Irrigation District’s plan approved just last week.

Julie O’Shea, executive director of the Farm Conservation Alliance, said the group’s irrigation modernization program can help accelerate planning efforts for the local irrigation districts by bringing more resources to the table.

“It will take continued investments from the government, irrigation districts, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector to continue supporting this important work,” O’Shea said.

Jed Jorgenson, senior renewable energy program manager for Energy Trust of Oregon, said irrigation modernization is a smart investment that helps local communities both save and generate energy and create jobs, while improving water supplies for agriculture and the environment.

“The investment in the Tumalo irrigation infrastructure represents a major milestone for irrigation modernization and a big step forward for rural Oregon communities,” Jorgenson said.

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