MEDFORD, Ore. — Most years, Bobby Barber, ranch manager at Southern Oregon’s Double Rafter C. Ranch, gets about 450 tons of hay from the first cutting.
This year, the first cutting yielded 583 tons.
Barber said the difference in yield can be largely attributed to his switch from flood irrigating from open canals to installing sprinklers connected to high-pressure pipes, a change made possible by a recent piping project.
“It was a huge benefit to have the pipes and sprinklers,” said Barber. “It’s much, much better.”
The project is known as the Bradshaw Drop piping project, in which the local water district converted a 3.3-mile stretch of open canal dating back to the late 1800s into a new, pressurized pipeline.
The pipeline represents a broader trend across Southern Oregon: More water districts are exploring irrigation modernization.
On the Bradshaw Drop project, Barber said, the high-density polyethylene pipes prevent leakage, deliver water in a way that is “more thorough and accurate” and cost him nothing in pumping bills.
Barber said piping has potential drawbacks, such as clogging and technical failures. In his mind, however, the benefits outweigh the costs “by a long shot.”
Rogue River Valley Irrigation District led the project.
“It was a win for the district. It was a win for farmers. And it was a win for fish,” said district manager Brian Hampson.
The new pipeline can provide pressurized water to more than 700 acres.
Because the new system loses less water to seepage and evaporation, it also allows the district to put more water in-stream for fish during median water years.
Now, other Southern Oregon districts are looking to the project as an example.
“Getting that project done really opened the door for districts down here to take a hard look at piping and getting things accomplished,” said Hampson.
Sean Naumes, a pear grower and vice chair of nearby Medford Irrigation District, said the Bradshaw Drop project is “a great example of piping in our region that could be applied to the system as a whole.”
Piping projects, however, take time.
Even the small Bradshaw Drop project was complex. Construction lasted from 2018 to 2020, and the district is now helping farmers convert their systems.
Piping is also expensive to install. For the Bradshaw Drop piping project, Rogue River Valley Irrigation District pulled together $3.6 million from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and $1.9 million from the state’s general fund.
Other irrigation districts are also looking to install pipelines, for which they must secure funding.
One example of a proposal that is moving forward is a joint 13.6-mile-long pipeline construction project between Medford and Rogue River Valley irrigation districts.
When completed, the multimillion-dollar installation will be the largest recent irrigation infrastructure project in Jackson County. The districts are working with a nonprofit called the Farmers Conservation Alliance to develop a watershed plan.
Julie O’Shea, executive director of the FCA, said even communities that don’t feel that piping is the right fit for their district are showing an increased interest in other forms of modernization.
“I’ve been working in modernization for a long time, and I would say in the last few years in particular, it’s just been an exciting time where you see more people at the table thinking about irrigation modernization,” said O’Shea.