Guest column: Federal funding a win for local farmers, fish and wildlife

Five years from now, stream flows in the Deschutes River Basin may look more like they did at the turn of the 20th century.

Last week, the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee unanimously moved the energy & water appropriations bill forward.

As part of the legislation, the WaterSmart program received a $26 million increase, to $60 million, to fund projects that will help irrigation districts comply with the Endangered Species Act.

The WaterSmart program has supported the collaborative process that is underway within Central Oregon to conserve water, improve habitat for endangered steelhead and the spotted frog, and keep Oregon farms in business.

The monumental water conservation bill essentially puts the health of the Deschutes River and its tributaries decades ahead of where they would be without it. In my view, the collaborative effort that put this restoration process in motion is one of the biggest success stories to impact Central Oregonians in the last 30 years.

Made possible by the tireless efforts of Sen. Jeff Merkley and the Oregon congressional delegation, $35 million in funding will go to help irrigation districts in the Deschutes Basin modernize aging, outdated and inefficient agriculture water delivery systems.

This funding ensures farmers and ranchers in the region get the water they need while improving water quality and paving the way for more balanced, year-round conditions for fish and wildlife habitat along the Deschutes.

How will these updates save water? Our existing open-air irrigation canals, many of which were hand-dug more than a century ago are grossly inefficient — lose 20% to 50% of diverted water through seepage and evaporation. This means neither farmers nor the river gets as much water as they need.

By piping open irrigation canals, we have the opportunity to conserve millions of gallons of water each year. Water saved from seepage below and evaporation above can now go to the farm or stay in the river, thereby increasing flows in the Upper Deschutes River during winter months.

These efforts support fish and wildlife conservation, while the gravity-pressured water eliminates the need for farmers to maintain costly pumps. In addition, the ability for the pressurized pipes to generate hydropower provides both a new clean energy source for rural communities and a new revenue source for irrigation districts to help mitigate costs and better serve farmers.

Over the next five years, this water delivery modernization project is expected to pipe more than 400,000 feet of open canals across Central Oregon, to the tune of nearly 94 cubic feet per second in water savings. What’s more, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Oregon Water Resources Department, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Energy Trust of Oregon, and the Deschutes Basin irrigation districts, have stepped up to ensure that these federal dollars can be matched with state funding.

During a time when our often divisive and rancorous political climate overshadows common sense solutions, it’s heartening to bear witness to a large-scale collaborative effort where we are rowing in the same boat, pulling toward a shared outcome.

But our work, and the collaborative approach needed to balance how we use and share water in the Deschutes Basin isn’t done yet. As we look to the future, we must continue to work together across communities to support and invest in improvements that will yield sustainable, forever change.

I am proud to be a part of the effort to improve our environment and strengthen the resilience of our agricultural community.

— Craig Horrell is president of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control.