Bend Bulletin - Bend’s wastewater could be destined for North Unit farmers

Facing drought conditions and a dire shortage of water, North Unit Irrigation District in Jefferson County has started talks with the city of Bend about tapping its treated wastewater, a small but potentially helpful lifeline that could extend the district’s irrigation season — but not this year.

Up to 2 million gallons of water per day could be made available to North Unit from Bend’s Water Reclamation Facility, said Michael Buettner, the city of Bend utility director.

Using treated wastewater would help the troubled district, which has consistently cut water supplies to patrons during several years of drought. In an average water year, the district delivers 2 acre-feet of water per acre to patrons. This year it’s supplying just 0.8 acre-feet. The shortage is driving many farmers to the brink of going out of business.

“We’ve had conversations about getting our effluent into the North Unit Irrigation District canal, very preliminary conversations,” said Buettner.

“We haven’t struck any deals, we haven’t signed any documents, but we’ve had conversations about what it would take to make that happen.”

Bend’s reclamation facility lies less than 200 yards from the North Unit canal as it passes east of Bend. The facility has previously supplied Pronghorn Resort with treated water for irrigating its golf course.

North Unit Irrigation District serves 2,265 households spread over 59,000 acres of land in Jefferson County. Its farms are some of the most efficient in Central Oregon, using less water per acre compared to other irrigation districts, but persistent drought over several seasons has reduced its water source at Wickiup Reservoir. As of Friday, the Reservoir was down to just 11% of capacity and is expected to be empty by around Aug. 18.

Two million gallons of water per day represents around 2-3% of the water used by North Unit farmers, so the treated water is viewed as just one piece of a much larger solution.

“What we are going to provide may not be enough water to make an impact at all,” said Buettner. “It may be just a few percent of what they need, but every little bit helps, and collectively a bunch of different sources could come together.”

“It’s a small amount but we would take any water we can get,” said Gary Harris, a North Unit farmer.

The effluent water currently flows to the nearby Hatfield Ponds, a habitat for migratory birds. Buettner said the city would need to retain some of its recycled water to sustain the ponds, a popular spot for birdwatching .

The water does come with a charge. The city currently charges $196 per acre-foot for treated wastewater that can be used for agricultural purposes. Buettner said the final cost of effluent water would be based on negotiations between the city and North Unit.

The wastewater is unlikely to be available this year. North Unit’s executive manager Mike Britton said a deal could come together in 2022.

“Studies and permitting must occur before this is possible,” said Britton. “We plan to have all this in place for next year’s irrigation season.”

In addition to the effluent water, help could be on the way from the state.

Britton said he has submitted a request to Salem for $30 million in aid to farmers. He is hoping to receive the funds through House Bill 5006, which includes $150 million for natural disaster relief.

“The funding would be used to provide bridge funding for farmers who have losses as a result of drought,” said Britton. “It could help pay mortgages or equipment payments.”

Liz Merah, Governor Kate Brown’s press secretary, said her office has received the request for aid but has yet to issue a response.