Senate bill could fund Central Oregon water projects

A U.S. Senate bill could help pay for Central Oregon water-related projects that aim to conserve water and improve habitat for the Oregon spotted frog.

The Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously voted the Senate agriculture appropriations bill out of committee Thursday with a bipartisan 30-0 vote, sending the measure to the Senate for a full vote. The bill would later need to merge with a version from the House to become law.

Local irrigation districts could be in a good position to compete for at least $50 million.

“This is funding we’ve never seen before,” said Craig Horrell, district manager of Central Oregon Irrigation District that provides irrigation water to areas around Alfalfa, Bend and Redmond, among others, and city water to Redmond. “This is a larger amount of funding at one time than we’ve seen.”

The bill appropriates nearly $150 billion for federal agriculture and nutrition programs in 2017.

It includes $150 million in new funding for the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations Program. That program targets federal and state efforts to prevent erosion, conserve water and conserve land in watersheds, among other projects. It has not been funded since 2010.

Irrigation districts can use funds from that program to improve water efficiency and conservation and habitat for fish and wildlife, such as the spotted frog. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the frog as a threatened species under the endangered species act in 2014 and recently designated critical habitatin Oregon and Washington for the animal.

“This program is a good fit for the collaborative process underway in the Deschutes Basin to conserve water and improve the habitat of the spotted frog, helping to keep Central Oregon family farms in business,” stated a news release from Sen. Jeff Merkley. The Oregon Democrat serves on the Senate Committee on Appropriations and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture manages the watershed program, and districts can apply for grants. Districts in Central Oregon are well-positioned to compete for funding — especially for about $50 million out of the $150 million total provided — because of criteria laid out in the program, said Courtney Warner Crowell, a Merkley spokesman.

Districts usually compete for smaller amounts of money through various grants and revolving funds, Horrell said. But those funds have not been large enough to do expensive projects like installing pipes in canals for long distances, only shorter distances.

“They’re expensive,” Horrell said of projects to conserve water, such as piping.

In a statement, Mike Britton — general manager of North Unit Irrigation District that supplies irrigation water to farmland in Jefferson County and president of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control that helps coordinate several Central Oregon irrigation districts — called the legislation “a great opportunity for the Deschutes Basin and Central Oregon.”

The new financing to help districts modernize irrigation equipment would strengthen agricultural resilience, support economic development and provide a chance to enhance environmental benefits for fish and other species, Britton said.

Separately, the nonprofit Farmers Conservation Alliance, an Oregon nonprofit, on Thursday announced a statewide partnership joining 12 rural irrigation districts, local farmers, state and federal agencies, Energy Trust of Oregon and conservation groups in an effort to improve irrigation districts’ leaking open canal systems. The partnership looks to update those systems using pipes to save water and to save on related electricity, maintenance and replacement costs.