Breaking ground on irrigation piping in Central Oregon

The Madras Pioneer

Stakeholders from all over Central Oregon gathered Friday afternoon, Oct. 20, against the backdrop of Smith Rock to celebrate launching three new piping projects in the Deschutes Basin.

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) was the keynote speaker, praised by others as instrumental in getting almost $200 million for farming and irrigation projects in Central Oregon.

Merkley in turn praised the many players in Central Oregon for their collaboration.

“Instead of competing with each other we work together, we pool our talents to expand resources for everyone,” Merkley said.

The gathering ceremonially broke ground on $120 million in piping projects in three irrigation districts in the Deschutes Basin.

Arnold Irrigation District will pipe twelve miles of its main canal and update its infrastructure.

North Unit Irrigation District will begin a project to enclose 27.5 miles of its main canal and and build four agricultural water retention ponds.

Ochoco Irrigation District will pipe seven miles of its canal, improve 11 miles of canal banks and install three pumping station.

The projects within the AID, NUID, and OID will occur in phases with all work expected to be complete by 2029.

People from all across the spectrum dipped their shovels in the dirt: the various irrigation districts, the Farmers Conservation Alliance, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Energy Trust of Oregon interested in generating hydropower with the water in irrigation canals, the Natural Resources Conservation District, and Deschutes River Conservancy.

Various speakers took turns listing the benefits of piping and modernizing the infrastructure.

  • Conserve water previously lost to seepage and evaporation
  • Improve on-farm efficiency
  • Enhance fish and wildlife habitat in the Deschutes River watershed
  • Generate hydropower using irrigation water
  • Make the basin more resilient to drought

Merkley summarized the scope of the project in numbers

  • 7,600 patrons
  • 150,000 acres
  • 166,000,000 gallons of water saved annually
  • 5,000 jobs
  • more than $200 million in economic development
  • more than 10 megawatts clean electricity generated using irrigation water

Merkley painted a historic picture of the need. When water agencies allocated water rights more than a century ago, 400,000 people lived in the state. Oregon’s population has grown to 4.2 million. Naturally, water hasn’t increased with the population, and it’s actually decreased. The state has less water to serve more people. Many say the region is experiencing the worst drought in more than 1,000 years.

All these arguments helped Merkley, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, get hundreds of millions of federal dollars dedicated to modernizing irrigation in the Deschutes Basin.

“In 2014,” recalled COID Managing Director Craig Horrell, “about 5,000 people gathered at the Tower Theater in Bend. Some laughed when we said we’d pipe the canals. We’re doing it.”

The ground-breaking event included a demonstration of a NUID machine for welding plastic pipe. Merkley looked on as NUID Construction Supervisor Dennis Krueger heated the edges of two pipes, one foot in diameter, then pressed them together creating a weld.

“That welding point will be stronger than the rest of the pipe,” said Marc Thalacker of Three Sisters Irrigation District.

OID fashioned a brand for Merkley to imprint onto one of the pipes. The brand heated in a fire, then the senator took the brand and pressed it into the plastic pipe imprinting the the insignia “2023 J. M. (his initials) U.S. Senator.”

Merkley leaves his mark on this season of irrigation modernization for the Deschutes Basin in more ways than one.