Local, national officials prioritize canal piping

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., reviewed Monday federal and local efforts to install pipe systems in Central Oregon canals as a way to move water more efficiently.

At a meeting with local irrigation district and environmental group representatives in Bend, Merkley emphasized adequate water supply as critical for the area’s agriculture industry and highlighted ongoing collaboration among irrigation districts, government agencies and environmental groups for the Deschutes Basin. This time of year marks the end of irrigation season and the start of storage season, when the Deschutes River’s flow is reduced to store water through the winter for next year’s irrigation needs. The reduced flow can leave drier banks and side channels, stranding fish and harming the habitat that animals such as the Oregon spotted frog need.

“We can help address this” through efforts to conserve water, Merkley said.

The focus has remained on piping projects, meant to more efficiently transport water so it is not wasted from leaking into the ground or evaporating. Such projects are expensive due to the materials and excavation work involved, and Merkley emphasized a need for federal investment. “This is the most feasible, direct strategy,” he said of piping.

Merkley seeks to advance three pieces of legislation in Congress that include funds that irrigation districts could use for piping projects — an energy and water appropriations act, an agriculture appropriations act and the Water Resources Development Act.

Monday’s event also highlighted a local piping project that has almost secured the nearly $4 million it needs. The effort will place pipes along a stretch of about 4,000 feet, less than a mile, near the Siphon Power Project at COID property just south of Blakely Park, according to district manager Craig Horrell.

The water would no longer be seen on that stretch, with the piping buried in the existing canal and a trail on top. The goal is to have more water in the river.

“It’s not natural. This is man-made,” Horrell said of the canal.

The project includes funds from COID, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Work could start in about a year and last about six months.

Deschutes River Conservancy Executive Director Tod Heisler noted that area irrigation districts want to modernize their systems and that funding opportunities are key strategies to do so. Heisler emphasized that efforts like piping projects can improve water quality in the Deschutes Basin.

“It does really come down to water conservation,” Heisler said. “We just need to do more of it” and at a faster pace, he added.