April 8, 2008 - Bend Bulletin Water of Life
Apr 11, 2008
Water of life
On Monday, the first of eight irrigation districts that distribute water to nearly 150,000 acres of land in Central Oregon began to divert water to canals in the region. The initial flows are about one-third of the flows at the height of the irrigation season, in late summer. North Unit Irrigation District, which delivers water to customers near Madras, has begun drawing water from the Deschutes River.
When to expect water
• North Unit Irrigation District — Monday
• Central Oregon I.D. — Thursday
• Arnold I.D. — Sunday
• Ochoco I.D. — Monday
• Tumalo I.D. — Monday
• Lone Pine I.D. — April 16-17
• Three Sisters I.D. — (On demand, likely April 17)
• Swalley I.D. — April 24
What was the region like before irrigation?
Beginning in the late 1800s, the federal government encouraged settlement in Oregon’s High Desert. In order to create agriculturally useful land, the irrigation districts were created to divert the natural rivers and streams and reclaim the desert. At this time, environmental concerns were nonexistent, and the Deschutes was often diverted almost entirely.
Restoring natural flows
Although the irrigation districts are legally entitled to all of the water flowing in the Deschutes, a gentlemen’s agreement in the 1960s promised at least 30 cfs of water would flow down the river below Bend during irrigation season. Through agreements with organizations such as the Deschutes River Conservancy, the districts hope to eventually restore the flow to around 250 cfs.
Water rights are tied to individual pieces of land and vary depending on how many acres are owned and how long ago the right was given. (More senior water right holders must have their water obligation filled before more junior water right holders.) Oregon law states that the water must be put to a beneficial use at least once every five years or the water right is forfeited. Recently, regulators have allowed water right holders to lease their water back instream, meaning the water stays in the river for the lease period, but the holder can still use it in the future.
How is water distributed?
Each irrigation district’s canal system resembles the circulatory system of the human body; larger canals distribute water to smaller canals, which distribute water to individual plots of land. Locking headgates, such as the one shown to the left, are used to ensure that each patron with a water right receives the same amount of water, which is determined by season and acreage. It is a criminal offense to tamper with irrigation headgates.
What is the water used for?
The water is used for a variety of agricultural activities in Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties.