Standing in front of pipes taller than any NBA basketball star and against the backdrop of grazing cattle with Smith Rock in the distance, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley kicked off the second phase of a project to pipe the canal that delivers water to Central Oregon irrigators.
The kick-off took place Friday morning, Aug. 20.
“Water is really the lifeblood of our ecosystem and our economy both,” said Merkley. “It’s what matters when it comes down to healthy streams and lakes and drinking water. It certainly matters a hell of a lot when it comes to farming and ranching. You can’t grow crops in an arid situation without a good irrigation system.”
The pipes for this phase of the project are 8 1/2 feet in diameter. Some pipes in the plan will be even larger, 13 feet in diameter. Crews have already laid four miles of pipe, with three miles to go for a total of seven miles of piping.
Piping irrigation canals has long been in the works, but never so appreciated as this year. After five years of drought Central Oregon, farmers have experienced the worst water shortage on record.
The open-air canals lose 30 to 40% of their water through leakage and evaporation. Piping solves that problem.
“We’re looking at 10 billion gallons of water being saved going in stream for the fish and the frog, for recreation, and for our communities,” says Julie O’Shea, executive director of the Farmers Conservation Alliance.
O’Shea points out the project not only saves pumping costs for irrigators, it also generates in-conduit hydroelectric power, which districts can sell for additional revenue.
This piping project will save 30 cubic feet per second, or 10,000-acre feet. Craig Horrell, manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District, puts the saved water in more practical terms. That 10,000-acre feet would have extended the irrigation season two to three weeks for Jefferson County farmers this year.
In fact, the North Unit Irrigation District, which serves Jefferson County, stands to gain the most from this project. With junior water rights, NUID gets last dibs at the water. COID passes the water it saves along to NU
“In the end, we’re going to be much better off because it will be a more reliable source,” says Marty Richards, NUID board chair.
The extra water will help irrigators meet the benchmarks set down in the Habitat Conservation Plan, a plan that reserves water for wildlife habitat.
“We have to meet those benchmarks,” says Richards. “And if we don’t, we are the ones that are harmed because we are the junior water rights holders.”
NUID Manager Josh Bailey looks forward to the additional water. “This will mean an addition 30 cubic feet per second that normally we would not have access to. That’s enough water to effectively supply water to 10 or 20 farms a day, depending how much water they’re pulling.”
Bailey says we should see a difference by next year’s irrigation season.
Mike Britton, NUID executive manager, saw this project through from the beginning.
“Between Senators Merkley and Wyden and then Congressman Walden, we were able to pull this off,” says Britton, “which is a big deal in this neck of the woods.”
Years one and two of the COID piping project will cost $32.8 million. COID borrowed $1.8 million for the design. State lottery ponds pitched in $8.5 million. The largest contribution comes from the federal government, $22.5 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Since 2015, the federal appropriation committee has dedicated $130 million to these Oregon projects.
Merkley announced another dedicated $500 million from the federal infrastructure plan to spend over the next 10 years.
He says investing to save water will only be more important in the future.
“It’s just a lot dryer and a lot hotter,” says Merkley. “We want to continue into the future to make the most of every precious drop of water that we can. I’m proud and pleased to be part of this collaboration.”