Merkley, USDA Under Secretary Bonnie Celebrate Irrigation Milestone in Central Oregon

Sisters, OR – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley welcomed USDA Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie to Central Oregon to celebrate the completion of a major modernization effort at Three Sisters Irrigation District (TSID).  The project utilized federal funding Merkley secured as a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

TSID’s 25-year effort to upgrade its water delivery system replaced over sixty miles of leaky open canals with pressurized piped water, sharply reducing the amount of water needed for irrigation and eliminating the need for electricity to power pumps. The final project in the modernization effort is the addition of a 300kW McKenzie Hydropower Facility—the district’s third hydropower plant—which will generate enough energy to power approximately 100 homes and produce revenue to the district that will help offset the modernization costs.

Merkley and Bonnie were in Sisters to celebrate the ribbon cutting of the new hydroelectric facility along with a number of partners and stakeholders who came together to ensure an adequate, dependable water supply for the 129 farms and over 7,500 irrigated acres TSID serves.

“Modernizing our irrigation systems is one of the best investments we can make to strengthen our resilience to climate chaos and drought,” Merkley said. “Central Oregon has led the way and Three Sisters Irrigation District is a prime example, replacing more than 60 miles of open ditches and canals with pipes. The result: elimination of massive water loss from leakage and evaporation; pressurized pipes that end expensive on-farm pumping; clean energy from in-pipe hydro turbines; and more water for farmers and our rivers. Many people came together to turn this district into one of the most modernized in Oregon. Thank you to everyone who was involved and for USDA Under Secretary Bonnie for his support. I was proud to show him how Oregon does water conservation right.”

“USDA is proud to be a partner in modernizing Central Oregon’s water infrastructure,” Under Secretary Bonnie said. Oregon’s producers are valuable stewards of the land, and the implementation of the new pressurized piping system at Three Sisters will further aid them in that effort by preventing water leakage and greatly reducing energy usage. Over 60 miles of new piping means that the 129 farms in the Three Sisters Irrigation District will have to worry a lot less about the amount of water they’ll be able to pump. I also can’t underscore the importance of the McKenzie Hydropower Facility enough. It will add another 1 million kWh of renewable energy each year for homes in the area and will make Three Sisters a carbon neutral irrigation district. A great example of how rural communities, stakeholders, and governments can come together to address climate change. Like at Three Sisters, USDA will continue to support Rural America in maintaining their local economies and self-sufficiency.”

Other improvements that now make TSID one of the most modernized of the 40 irrigation districts in Oregon include: piping the district’s 64 miles of canals, installation of a Farmers Screen horizontal fish screen, on-farm improvements, and the implementation of fish-friendly hydropower.

“I want to thank Senator Merkley and Under Secretary Bonnie for joining us to celebrate the completion of over twenty years of modernization efforts. With support from federal, state, and local partners, TSID has piped 62 miles of canals, constructed three hydropower facilities, and installed a state-of-the-art fish screen. Because of these efforts, TSID is able to reliably deliver water to our patrons, provide water in-stream, and reduce our energy bills through clean renewable energy,” said Mark Thalacker, District Manager, Three Sister Irrigation District.

“Achieving full modernization in this district is really a great example of how the backbone of our country – agriculture – is leading the way to demonstrate the value of collaborative efforts that deliver real outcomes. The success of Three Sisters is the result of water users, conservationists, organizations, agencies, and political representatives working together to realize win-win solutions for farms, food and fish. Not only is the district saving nearly 60cfs of water each year, they’re also now generating enough renewable energy to be considered a carbon neutral district. With more than 900 modernization projects identified across other irrigation districts in Oregon, we’re excited about the example Three Sisters has set for other districts to follow in pursuit of irrigation modernization,” said Julie O’Shea, Executive Director of the Farmers Conservation Alliance.

“TSID and our Central Oregon irrigation districts are some of the most innovative in the Western U.S. It’s fitting and an honor to have Senator Merkley – who has led the charge towards securing important federal watershed funding – and Under Secretary Robert Bonnie – who oversees implementation of these watershed programs – join us at this celebration,” said Dan Keppen, Executive Director of Family Farm Alliance.

“There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but what’s often missing is the spark—the early capital to turn ideas into action. In the Deschutes Basin and the Three Sisters Irrigation District, Energy Trust’s investment in irrigation modernization has been transformative and we have been honored to play the role of the spark,” said Michael Colgrove, Executive Director of the Energy Trust of Oregon.

“We are proud to have been a part of this long-term partnership to restore flows, ensure reliable water for agriculture, and generate renewable energy. In addition to flow restoration, the collaborative partnership with the Deschutes Land Trust, the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and others brought in the land conservation, habitat restoration, and fish passage projects necessary to revive Whychus Creek as an ecological gem within a thriving agricultural community. This is truly a multi-benefit story, and we celebrate the continued efforts of FCA, NRCS, and our federal delegation to fund additional conservation in the Deschutes Basin,” said Kate Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of the Deschutes River Conservancy.