Merkley joins 3 C.O. irrigation districts, nonprofits to break ground on $120 million in canal piping projects


Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., joined leaders from three Deschutes River Basin irrigation districts and nonprofits Farmers Conservation Alliance and Energy Trust of Oregon to break ground Friday on a series of projects to modernize critical irrigation infrastructure serving 2,500 farmers and producers and 85,000 acres of land across Central Oregon.

When complete, officials say, these upgrades will save energy and millions of gallons of water each year, lowering costs for Oregon farmers. 

Here’s the rest of the full announcement of Friday’s groundbreaking ceremony near Smith Rock State Park, as provided by the Energy Trust of Oregon:

With support from FCA, Energy Trust, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others, the Arnold Irrigation DistrictNorth Unit Irrigation District and Ochoco Irrigation District have begun the estimated $120 million process of converting aging, open ditch irrigation canals into modern piped, pressurized systems, as numerous irrigation districts have been doing in the region for some time.

The irrigation districts’ current, roughly 100-year-old canals can lose as much as 70% of the water they carry to evaporation and leakage, at a time when the region faces prolonged drought.

In addition to saving a significant amount of water, officials said the upgrades will:

  • Reduce energy costs for the districts and farmers who pump water from the canals to their crops
  • Improve operational efficiency, allowing the districts to monitor and adjust usage remotely
  • Enhance fish and wildlife habitat in the Deschutes River watershed
  • Create the opportunity to generate hydropower, a locally created renewable energy resource

“This work is absolutely key for the future of Oregon and all of the western United States,” Merkley said. “These benefits are crucial for farmers here in the Deschutes River Basin, but we know the impact will go far beyond that. By saving water, energy, and money and in some cases generating clean power, these projects will help protect our precious natural resources in the face of climate chaos and create stronger, more resilient communities.”

Over the next several years, the districts will replace nearly 50 miles of open canal with pressurized pipe. The new systems will be far more reliable for farmers and save roughly 64 cubic feet of water per second during irrigation season, which will lower costs by more than $800,000 per year. The work will also protect and improve habitat for aquatic species, especially within McKay Creek.

“The Deschutes Basin has faced years of drought and water scarcity that has impacted the lives of everyone and everything that calls the basin home,” said Julie O’Shea, executive director of FCA.  “For agricultural producers, this has meant shortened irrigation seasons, fewer crops going to market, and more expensive operating costs. For rivers, this has meant lower flow, poorer water quality, and stressed fish.

“Modernizing irrigation systems is the key to  thriving farms, healthy rivers, and resilient communities. We’re excited to see this work in Central Oregon take off and know it will have a positive impact for generations to come.”

The three irrigation districts have worked closely with FCA and Energy Trust to develop modernization plans with an emphasis on efficiency. For the last 20 years, the nonprofits have partnered with irrigation districts across Oregon to design and create shovel-ready projects that allow irrigation districts to take advantage of all available funding sources.

“These public infrastructure projects are incredibly complex and expensive, but we know they are well worth the investment of time and money it takes to get them off the ground,” said Dave Moldal, senior program manager with Energy Trust. “Energy Trust is glad to support the irrigation districts with the initial funding to plan these upgrades, which is really the key to unlocking necessary state and federal funding for piping and the energy benefits that modernization will yield.”

The projects within the Arnold Irrigation District, North Unit Irrigation District and Ochoco Irrigation District will occur in phases with all work expected to be complete by 2029. Irrigation modernization requires significant partnerships, due to the financial and technical challenges the work presents.

Other partners in these projects include the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Oregon Water Resources Department, and the Deschutes Basin Board of Control.