A little Central Oregon irrigation humor.
Reporter: "How do you measure how much water you're getting?"
Farmer: "Go to the tree, grab that stick, stick it in and if it hits the notch then that's the right amount."
That's no joke. Such measuring tools are still in use while irrigation water flows are still calculated with manual "quarter turns." Central Oregon's canals are archaic. Some experts say they're leaking and robbing the Deschutes River of adequate flow to sustain salmon, trout and the Oregon spotted frog—and the question of what to do about it seems to erupt every year.
This year, though, the wheels seem to be in motion.
A complex issue
Imagine you've sprung a leak at your home and you're losing as much as 60 percent of the water you're paying for. You'd probably try and fix it as quickly as possible. "If you had a leak as big as this," says Tod Heisler of the Deschutes River Conservancy, speaking of the irrigation canals, "you'd fix it." Except when you're dealing with water rights, the loss of iconic canals and Oregonians' property, it's controversial and the change is slow moving. "We all agree there's a problem, we just disagree on how to get there and who will pay for it. But I'm confident we'll get there," Heisler says.
All water in Oregon is publicly owned (with some exceptions). Cities, farmers, factory owners and other users obtain water rights from the Oregon Water Resources Department to use water from any source— whether underground or from a canal. Senior water right holders were granted rights, attached to large parcels of land, as far back as 1905.
A hierarchical system pegs senior holders — those with rights authorized before 1905 — and junior water right holders against each other. Senior holders can issue "calls" for water and under Oregon law, junior holders must shut off their water until a senior gets their full allotment.
Water rights holders pay a per acre-feet fee, two farmers we spoke to said they paid approximately $25 a month, plus a head-gate fee of around $250 a year. When you see rural real-estate touting "original water rights" it's because these permits are attached to a specific property, not an individual. Property owners can lease, mitigate and give back their rights, though few rarely do. The "use it or lose it" clause requires holders to use all of the water they are allotted for, which is why you'll see golf-course type lawns in some areas. Although originally intended to prevent users from sitting on water rights, in practice, it tempts many to withdraw their full allotment, even when they don't need it.
A recent report commissioned by Central Oregon LandWatch found that unequal water allocations end up wasting water and promoting inefficiency. Junior water right holders facing scarcity of water were found to conserve more frequently and were more apt to use drip-irrigation systems, preserving water at a rate of 94 percent, as opposed to sprinkler or flood irrigation systems which could see a 43 percent loss. The study in Jefferson County showed that if conservation practices were applied basin-wide, improved water quality could be seen across the Deschutes River.
But how do you incentivize farmers to make the switch to more efficient watering practices?
And what about all that loss of water?
A brief history
Over 100 years ago, settlers used horses and shovels to dig through coarse lava rock, carving over 700 miles of canal systems—by hand—for farming and ranching in Central Oregon. Swaths of dusty, arid high desert land were transformed into wetlands and rich farming meccas. But as population growth increased, the climate warmed, canals leaked, agriculture automatized and farms were eaten up by urbanization, Central Oregon began turning toward conservation. In the past few years irrigation districts have begun revisiting their relationship with the canals. A move toward pressurized systems is unfolding—albeit with some opposition—as efforts to restore the Upper Deschutes waterway flows continue.
An Intricate System
Fed by natural springs and snowpack, Central Oregon's water system centers around the Deschutes River and the reservoirs of Crescent Lake, Crane Prairie—and the largest, at 200,000 acre-feet—Wickiup Reservoir. Harnessing the flow of the Deschutes has been the method of choice for irrigation for more than 100 years. The character of the river has changed as a result, reducing flows and increasing temperatures, which greatly impact fisheries and wildlife. In the peak of farming season, up to 95 percent of the Deschutes is diverted, with most of those diversions located near Bend. In the Middle Deschutes, a 40-mile stretch of river between Bend and Lake Billy Chinook, the flow can drop drastically, down to 30 cubic feet per second (cfs).
"We need to figure out what benefits the river," DRC's Heisler says, "and our group provides the forum for all of the stakeholders—the irrigation districts, conservation groups, the government—to hammer out the best solution."
Solutions have been kicked around since 1999. Flows have improved within the past few years, from a median 47 cfs in 2002 to more than triple the rate 10 years later, at 157 cfs, as reported by the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council. Though that is far from ideal.
Gail Snyder, executive director of the Coalition for the Deschutes, speaking to the Source spoke about the importance of year-round flows maintained at 300 cfs, as suggested by the Wild and Scenic Management Plan designated in 1996 for the Upper Deschutes. Higher flows mean river ecology begins to improve, as slow flow is usually attributed to higher water temperatures which can eradicate native fish populations and impact habitat conditions for endangered species such as the Oregon spotted frog.
Fish numbers, too, are low. Species such as salmon and trout need cold temperatures to thrive; below 64 degrees, with an upwards limit of 75. Temperatures have been recorded well above these limits, even upwards of 82 degrees in some stretches of the river. A 2016 report by UDWC noted that at all four monitoring stations, the "Deschutes River exceeded the 18C (64 F) state standard for 2-57 percent of data days in 2015," thus at times, critically endangering fish species.
With restoring flows a major target, an unexpected player is vowing to help realize a portion of those restored flows: the very irrigation districts diverting most of the water, namely Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID).
Irrigation by the Numbers
"Our canals were built by the federal government, and we were given this canal system to foster development here. And it worked!" says COID's General Manager Craig Horrell. An engineer by trade who helped with the Old Mill District revamp, Horrell has been COID's GM for three years. His district oversees the largest share of canal systems—400 miles that deliver water to more than 46,000 acres and 3,600 patrons.
Being the largest irrigation district and seeing the inefficiencies of an antiquated system full of alleged leaks and evaporation, Horrell has been slowly fostering change in what some patrons say is an unconventional manner: by overhauling the canals and replacing them with pressurized systems, or pipes. His plan is to eliminate about 90 percent of pumps that currently irrigate crops, or approximately 2,300 pumps — an energy savings of approximately 33,287,460 kWH per year, according to the Energy Trust of Oregon.
Coupled with educating farmers for better on-farm efficiencies, such as the drip irrigation promoted by the LandWatch study, Horrell believes piping would save farmers 50 percent of their irrigation costs. A variance of 700 feet of elevation means many farmers use expensive pumps for their irrigation. Switching over would eliminate the need for pumps, reducing overall maintenance and electricity fees for farmers. Horrell believes farmers could be incentivized to switch when they realize the cost savings.
Critics points out that canal lining, a current go-to method, is less expensive then piping. However experts weigh in that lining requires significant maintenance and replacement cycles that ultimately lead to excessive costs.
"I'm all for pressurized systems," says one Redmond area cattle farmer. "The only thing I would be worried about is then the lack of groundwater, which could dry up our wells." Since aquifers replenish from groundwater, those concerns could be warranted. However, Tod Heisler of DRC says, "...The historic natural aquifer, one that has been here for thousands of years is not affected by canal piping. But this natural aquifer is much deeper, 500-800 feet deep."
Horrell agrees that the landscape of the region is changing, moving away from large scale commercial agriculture. He refutes any thought that water should be taken away from farmers. Still, he's all for promoting efficiency. "Bend is a beautiful place, but everything has changed," Horrell says, "What we're trying to tackle is how do we affect that change."
The plan is to replace the canal system from one that COID says leaks 40 to 60 percent of its water, mainly due to the porous volcanic bedrock underneath, as well as evaporation. At a 30 percent loss, The Pilot Butte canal appears to lose less, according to COID's research. A recent push by Sen. Jeff Merkley to add watershed and flood prevention operations into the federal spending bill passed in the Senate on May 4. It secures funding until the end of September, and means that for the first time since 2010, Central Oregon has a portion of $150 million to work with for water conservation projects.
A new project is slated between Smith Rock and Redmond, and would eliminate 140 rotations (the distribution of water at the farm gate) and impact 638 patrons. The pilot project showcases the benefits of the pressurized system proven to be efficient in other areas. Commenting on the need for replacement, Horrell says, "When you have a hundred-year-old system, it's pretty much all bad."
Opponents of Piping
"Not so," says Aleta Warren, a staunch opponent of piping, whose property backs onto the Pilot Butte Canal in Bend. Warren, a member of a now-defunct group that has fought COID against piping, got a portion of that canal from Cooley Road to Yeoman listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2016.
"This was dug by hand in 1903," Warren says, standing next to the canal. "It needs to be protected and cherished, not only for the wildlife, the ducks, geese, frogs and deer, but for its historical legacy."
COID's plans to pipe its two main canals would alter the aesthetic of the canals running through Bend, some of which are used (against recommendation) for recreational pursuits such as tubing. Reports state that piping both canals would conserve 82,000 acre-feet of water, or the equivalent of 276 cfs, in the Upper Deschutes during winter months.
Warren refutes this claim and the claim that the canal leaks, pointing to the high levels of water, lapping at the edges. "It's almost overflowing," she says, "If they're so worried about conserving, then why is it so high? COID is in it for the hydropower putting money in their pockets, and nothing else." Warren shows us Google satellite images that look like irrigation ponds, which she says are run off from the hydropower and are dumped in the northeast parts of the district.
Horrell disputes any claims regarding dumping or historical representation, noting that in their own independent study, they found 10 other markers that were deemed of greater historic significance. Still, he says, the piping plan calls to preserve some canal areas, such as a stretch in downtown Redmond and at Brasada Ranch in Powell Butte. "The bottom line is, we have people that don't want their water feature buried. So we're going to have barriers," Horrell says.
Piping—and then what?
With the switch to piping, COID's estimate is that about 10 percent of the newly-conserved water would be held, while the rest could be stored in the region's reservoirs, or used for junior water right holders, as mitigation credits, or to expand already-irrigated farmlands, and yes, hydropower. Horrell and COID say the main goal is to conserve water through pressurized pipes, and that hydropower is a secondary goal. The district already has a few micro plants and is setting sights on potential plants on the Pilot Butte and Central Oregon Canal Systems, saying the renewable energy is clean, carbon free and brings in revenue for further conservation efforts—although their System Improvement Plan doesn't say how the revenue would directly benefit conservation. Hydropower currently powers approximately 6,000 homes in the area.
Ryan Houston, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, thinks the solution starts with piping larger commercial farming and ranching operations first before worrying about Bend area canals. "Fundamentally, irrigation is designed to support agriculture, so we need to identify the most productive places of agriculture and then focus on building the infrastructure to deliver water efficiently to those places first," Houston says.
It's growing pains," he continues, "Since shifting from this predominant landscape to a growing urban area, where all of a sudden the canal is more of an aesthetically pleasing water feature in some areas that adds real estate value, we need to learn how to have conversations which support the good of the entire community."
An Upper Deschutes Basin Study funded by the Bureau of Reclamation is already underway, and stakeholders expect it to include further suggestions for restoring Upper Deschutes waterway flows at the end of the year.
For those involved in this perennial conundrum, new research and productive conversations seem to offer the promise of relief.
COID's Horrell reflects, "It's complicated, and there's many ideas on how to do it. We're just trying to achieve balance for the masses."
And as Houston points out, "Do we want to be a community that has 'healthy' canals or truly, healthy rivers?"