Central Oregon irrigation district moves forward with piping ditches

BEND, Ore. — Plans to modernize irrigation systems in Central Oregon took another step forward this month with the approval of $11.2 million for the Swalley Irrigation District in Bend to convert 16.6 miles of leaky canals to more efficient, water-saving pipes.

Funding comes from the federal Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program, administered by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The project is part of a larger effort by several irrigation districts in the Deschutes River Basin to conserve water for endangered fish and the Oregon spotted frog, which was the subject of an environmental lawsuit in 2015.

To help implement work on the ground, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and former Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., pushed to reauthorize the Watershed Protection and Flood Program. Merkley has secured $50 million for Oregon through the program to date, with $25 million more expected this year.

But before irrigation districts can access the money, they must come up with a detailed watershed and system improvement plan. The Swalley Irrigation District’s plan was approved March 12 by NRCS Chief Matt Lohr, and was developed in collaboration with the Deschutes Basin Board of Control and Farmers Conservation Alliance.

Other districts that make up the Deschutes Basin Board of Control — including the Arnold, Central Oregon, Lone Pine, North Unit, Ochoco, Three Sisters and Tumalo irrigation districts — are also working toward similar watershed plans.

The Tumalo Irrigation District’s plan was approved by the NRCS late last year. Lohr and Merkley were on hand March 19 to celebrate the beginning of a project to pipe 15 miles of ditches within the district. Now the Swalley Irrigation District intends to pipe more than 16 miles over the next seven years.

Jer Caramata, Swalley Irrigation District general manager, said that, to date, the district has piped 45% of its system and made the single largest conserved water transfer in the state to support fish and wildlife habitat on the middle Deschutes River.

“Piping our remaining canals is just a continuation of many years of effort by many people and many organizations, and we expect that these remaining large projects will offer huge gains for the community at large,” Caramata said in a statement. “New infrastructure is being engineered with a 250- to 1,000-year lifespan. … These projects are being designed to be truly robust.”

The Swalley Irrigation District serves 668 members and roughly 4,333 acres of irrigated farmland between Bend and Redmond. Caramata said the district also produces enough renewable energy to power 250 local homes and businesses, thanks to a partnership with the Energy Trust of Oregon.

When completed, the improvements will conserve 6,172 acre-feet of water annually for in-stream and agricultural use by piping remaining ditches and laterals. One acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons of water.

The first phase will be the Rogers Lateral Piping Project, installing 16,045 feet of pipe and reduce water loss by up to 20%. Work should be completed in early 2020.

Ron Nelson, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, a nonprofit that advocates improving stream flows and water quality in the basin, said irrigation modernization is essential to their mission, and a key component of ensuring a healthy region.

“The additional resources that the (NRCS), Farmers Conservation Alliance and Energy Trust of Oregon have brought into the basin will increase the pace and scale of these projects in districts across Central Oregon, amplifying the benefits for agriculture and for our rivers,” Nelson said.