Letter: Irrigation districts collaborate for positive change

Jan 16, 2014

Bend Bulletin

Letter: Irrigation districts collaborate for positive change By Steve Johnson

There’s a trend underway in Central Oregon, one built on cooperation and collaboration. And the result is that Oregon is becoming a national leader in river restoration and renewable energy.

In a surprising twist, some of the leading institutions driving this positive change are among our state’s oldest irrigation districts. Central Oregon irrigation districts are taking unprecedented steps to conserve water, improve habitat for fish and wildlife and, at the same time, generate carbon-free, renewable hydropower. And they’re doing it without constructing large, new dams.

North Unit Irrigation District, located near Madras, is beginning the first stages of the largest streamflow restoration initiative in Oregon’s history. During the winter of 2011 and 2012, with the support of the Deschutes River Conservancy and others, the district began the first phase of the project by lining five miles of its main irrigation canal with concrete. The newly lined canal conserved Deschutes River water that would otherwise have been lost to seepage. The conserved water will be used to irrigate productive farmlands that historically relied on water pumped from the Crooked River.

When this innovative project, which will include additional phases of canal lining and other conservation efforts, is complete, up to 220 cubic feet per second of water will be restored to the Crooked River north of Smith Rock State Park, benefiting salmon, steelhead and other fish and wildlife.

North Unit and the Central Oregon Irrigation districts are also working together with the state and private interests. With the support of Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife and its Water Resources Department, as well as private companies, construction is underway on the first of several smaller “in-canal” hydropower projects. These small hydropower projects, placed inside historic irrigation canals, will generate clean, renewable electricity by harnessing the normal flow of water through these canals. Hydropower projects offer the promise of a remarkable new synergy between irrigation deliveries and the generation of clean energy.

Five miles north of Bend, the Central Oregon Irrigation District recently completed the Juniper Ridge Hydropower Project and the Swalley Irrigation District completed the Ponderosa Hydropower Project. These new projects include nearly 7.5 miles of pipe, most of which was manufactured in Portland, now buried at the bottom of 100-year-old canals. During the six-month irrigation season, new turbines spin 24 hours per day, generating nearly 4.25 megawatts of electricity — or enough renewable energy to power 1,850 homes for an entire year. By placing pipe in the older dirt and rock canal to convey water to local farmers and ranchers, the districts are able to conserve water previously lost to seepage. In an average year, the projects will return nearly 58 cubic feet per second of water — or more than 20,000 acre-feet of water — to the Deschutes River. This is an incredible amount of water and will benefit salmon, steelhead and other fish and wildlife, as well as recreation values.

Many of Central Oregon’s irrigation districts date back to the late 1800s. Their canals, built out of the black basalt that defines this region, convey life-sustaining water to farmlands, pastures, schools and parks. But the districts are now driving a change to responsibly manage their water resources for multiple benefits. Their conservation projects and fishery restoration activities are some of the most innovative measures underway in the West.

For Oregon’s economy and environment, the results are stunning. These projects will strengthen agricultural productivity in one of our state’s most important farming regions, generate renewable electricity and enhance conditions for salmon, steelhead, other fish and wildlife and improve recreation. These are real, meaningful accomplishments and illustrate the very best of collaborative conservation.

— Steve Johnson is the general manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District and the president of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, which represents all seven major irrigation districts in Central Oregon.

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