Irrigators aim to restore transfers among reservoirs

Oregon water regulators have apparently stopped allowing the transfer of stored water among reservoirs, which irrigators hope will be rectified with upcoming legislation.

The problem was recently encountered by the Tumalo Irrigation District, which aimed to transfer storage water rights to enhance habitat for the threatened Oregon spotted frog and improve the function of its water distribution system.

By piping irrigation canals, the district is conserving water from its Crescent Lake reservoir that could then be transferred to an instream use in the Deschutes River, increasing stream flows for the frog, said Ken Rieck, the district’s manager.

Transferring stored water into the river would also generate credits allowing for groundwater pumping, which could be sold to raise money for additional piping projects, he said.

Aside from transfers to instream uses, the district wants to move water from the Tumalo reservoir into several smaller ponds that would help regulate water pressure, Rieck said.

Just as flushing a toilet can cause a home’s other water outlets to lose pressure, water diversion by a large irrigator can reduce pressure to lateral lines in a water system, he said.

Water transferred for storage in nearby ponds, however, can be pumped into the system to offset this loss in pressure, Rieck said. “We’re trying to bring our efficiency way up and this is the way to do that.”

Historically, the Oregon Water Resources Department has permitted the transfer of stored water among reservoirs, as well as the transfer of stored water to instream uses, said Elizabeth Howard, an attorney representing the district.

Over the past year or so, however, the agency has ceased approving such requests, seemingly due to a changed legal interpretation by the Oregon Department of Justice, Howard said.

It’s unclear what prompted the change, but the situation may be resolved with the Irrigation Storage Efficiency Act, which would clarify OWRD’s authority to approve such transfers.

The bill is expected to be introduced during the upcoming legislative session in February by Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, who recently spoke in favor of the “legislative concept” during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

Capital Press was unable to reach OWRD for comment as of press time.

Each transfer application would “stand or fail on its own merits,” as the legislation does not create any “shortcuts” to approval under the OWRD’s standard process, said Rieck.

The clarification would restore water management flexibility not only in the Tumalo Irrigation District but also in other areas that have similar needs, said Howard.

“The plain fact is it has a pretty significant impact on districts and irrigators who thought they had all these tools in their toolbox,” she said.

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