HOOD RIVER, Ore. — The Farmers Conservation Alliance was born of destruction, or more precisely, destruction that inspired creativity.
Twenty years ago, rushing floodwaters uprooted trees, knocked out bridges and demolished irrigation equipment in Oregon’s Hood River Valley.
Faced with a clean slate, growers in the Farmers Irrigation District decided to rebuild a more efficient system than the one that had been washed away.
Clogged fish screens were a common problem at the old system’s irrigation diversions. Not only would someone frequently have to remove the debris, but the mechanical devices regularly needed repair.
“Any time you have moving parts, they just wear out,” said Dan Kleinsmith, a former project manager for the district.
Before the flood, the Farmers Irrigation District spent about $90,000 annually to operate and maintain its fish screens, which stop salmon, steelhead and other native fish species from swimming into irrigation lines and pipes while keeping them clear.
Developing their unique replacement “Farmers Screen,” which relies on rushing water instead of machinery to keep the screens clear, turned out to be a heavy investment — roughly $2.5 million over 10 years.
In 2006, the screen concept was licensed to the newly formed Farmers Conservation Alliance with the goal of commercializing the technology so other irrigators could also benefit from it.
Since then, the nonprofit has installed about 40 of the screens, which cost from $15,000 to roughly $1 million, depending on the size of the diversion and level of customization.
Initially, the fish screens were approved by federal authorities on an experimental basis. However, widespread adoption would require proving to the National Marine Fisheries Service that they don’t harm fish protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“To scale our business, we had to become a NMFS-approved technology,” said Julie Davies O’Shea, the alliance’s executive director.
The process was financially taxing, as the nonprofit had to test the screen’s function at various water levels and fish life stages, she said.
The alliance nearly went out of business before finally winning clearance from federal authorities in 2011, but O’Shea said she doesn’t want to “vilify” the government because the process was new for everyone.
Old fish screen designs were “grandfathered in” the federal system, so the alliance had to “face the reality” of having the first new technology to receive more thorough vetting, she said.
O’Shea said she hopes their experience will make it easier to gain approval for future irrigation improvements developed by farmers and others in agriculture.
“How do we transfer that knowledge?” she said.
The basic idea behind the Farmers Screen —— of water moving horizontally over a flat screen — wasn’t new, but it never caught on because it didn’t work correctly, said Kleinsmith, who’s now a project manager for the alliance.
The concept was nonetheless attractive due to the possibility of reduced maintenance costs.
“We liked the idea of water traveling over the top of something rather than slamming into something,” Kleinsmith said.
An important refinement of the Farmers Screen is that water flows into a channel that gradually becomes narrower.
This feature is key because the amount of water in the channel decreases as some of it falls through the screen at the bottom.
If the channel was the same width, the speed of the water would diminish toward the end. However, because the channel is tapered, the water doesn’t lose its velocity.
Because of that, debris is prevented from settling on the screen and causing clogs, Kleinsmith said. “We’re counting on the water to sweep the screen off.”
Aside from installing fish screens, the alliance also helps other irrigation districts to modernize in other ways.
For example, replacing open canals with pipelines reduces water loss from evaporation and seepage, while also creating enough water pressure to generate hydropower.
However, many irrigation systems were built upwards of a century ago, so upgrading them to become more efficient is akin to fitting new parts onto an antique truck, O’Shea said.
The alliance assists irrigation districts with retrofits, including finding partners who can provide funding.
“There’s so much opportunity for environmental improvement,” O’Shea said.
Farmers Conservation Alliance
Organization: Nonprofit group aimed at irrigation system modernization
Executive director: Julie Davies O’Shea
Headquarters: Hood River, Ore.
Annual revenue: $318,000 (in 2014)