A century of water in the High Desert

September 4, 2018
A century of water in the High Desert

The Central Oregon Water District has been carrying the water for 100 years

Central Oregon is on an explosive growth path. Roads, housing, public transportation—all are hot-button issues in Bend and the surrounding communities. But without water, the region would have been just another high desert land mass on the map. Over the last 100 years, the Central Oregon Irrigation District has managed the Deschutes River—one of the most precious resources in the area.

At the turn of the 20th century, Central Oregon was a place teeming with activity. Throughout the latter part of the 19th century, the United States Congress had put together legislation to incentivize people to colonize the American West. Ranchers, farmers, and businessmen flocked to Central Oregon on the promise of cheap, irrigable land.

Farming and water go hand in hand. It was only natural for the first pioneers to settle close to the Deschutes River. Homesteaders without access to water tried their luck with dry farming, best described as a lottery considering the desert climate.

Irrigation was a necessity to transform the semi-arid Central Oregon high desert into productive farmland. But the task of building irrigation systems was beyond the capability of farmers, who barely eked out a living on their homesteads.

Congress, having sent thousands of homesteaders westward, realized that they needed to secure irrigation for their grand plans to come to fruition. It took another 30-plus years. In 1894, Congress passed the Carey Act, allowing private companies to build irrigation systems throughout the West. Building Bend into an irrigation community got underway in the early 1900s.

“The groups that were forming Bend were also forming the early irrigation companies,” said Ron Nelson, manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID) from 1980 to 2002.

Few of the initial irrigation companies survived long enough to build anything.

“There was a quick succession of companies during a 10-year period,” said Nelson. “They came to town, sold bonds in Portland, and began digging—only to realize the tough volcanic rock was hiding just below the surface.”

The irrigation companies quickly burned through their cash, struggling to dig and blast their way through the lava bedrock.

It was not until a lanky businessman from St. Paul, Minnesota, came to Farewell Bend in June 1900 that things changed. Alexander Drake and his wife, Florence, took up residence in what is now Drake Park. Only four months after arriving, Drake founded the Pilot Butte Development Company (PBDC) to take advantage of the promise made by the Carey Act.

Drake was not the first person with the idea of irrigating the High Desert. Years before he came to town, C. C. Hutchinson had tried and failed. Decidedly underfunded, Hutchinson teamed up with Drake.

Drake did not wait long to put his plans into motion. In October 1900, he hired another new arrival to Bend, civil engineer L. D. Wiest, to survey the area under consideration, a necessity to satisfy the rules set out in the Carey Act for the transfer of public lands to PBDC. The preliminary maps showed the placement of irrigation canals and specified the acreage that would eventually be encompassed by the system.

In May 1902, PBDC signed a contract with the State of Oregon establishing the right to irrigate nearly 85,000 acres in Central Oregon.

Drake’s irrigation plans were big news in Bend. The first issue of The Bend Bulletin, published on March 27, 1903, included an editorial by Don P. Rea, co-owner of the fledgling newspaper. Headlined pilot butte company wins, Rea wrote, “Irrigation and its benefits are practically unknown in Oregon, only small areas having been irrigated in this state.”

He continued, “When this company has placed water upon its desert lands, and thrown open for settlement its 84,000 and more acres of land, it will become the Mecca of home seekers until every tract of this immense body of land is the home of some thrifty settlers. . . . It will bring increased and increasing prosperity for the immediate neighborhood; it spells progress.”

The plans were grand, but before work had begun on constructing the canals, Drake sold his irrigation claims to the Deschutes Irrigation & Power Company for $10,000. The same year, 1904, the real work started.

“It was fast and furious for the first easy stuff,” said Craig Horrell, managing director of Central Oregon Irrigation District since 2013. “The harder stuff took a longer time.”

The hard stuff was building the canals.

In a 1953 interview with KBND reporter Kessler Cannon, Bend pioneer Ernest A. Smith remembered being in charge of the commissary for the many workers digging irrigation ditches. Smith worked at Camp Two, which held 200 men, 35 families, and about 150 horses.

“All the work was done by manual labor and [horse] teams,” said Smith. “The rock drilling was done largely by hand.”

At times, the hard lava rock proved too much for the men. Explosives experts, or so-called powder monkeys, were called in and blew away the stubborn rocks.

“[Afterward] the teams would come in with stone boats and get out the loose rock,” said Smith.

By 1907, crews had constructed the two main canals: Pilot Butte Canal and Central Oregon Canal. The cost estimates for the two canals and some of the main laterals came in at $848,557—approximately $23 million in today’s dollars. Although that’s obviously a sizable sum, building the same canals today, with updated technology, would prove even costlier.

“We know it would cost $400 million to pipe those canals today,” said Horrell.

The backbone of the delivery system was built around the canals. Although low-tech by today’s standards, the final product was exactly what Drake and Wiest had in mind. And it has stayed that way.

“Central Oregon Irrigation is largely functioning the way it was laid out 120 years ago,” said Nelson. “We think we are sophisticated today with all our engineering and our equipment, but the system runs on gravity, and it all works beautifully.”

Once the construction of the canals had been completed, the company started work on bringing water to its customers. The first land to be irrigated in Bend—40 acres—lay approximately where Country Sunset Mobile Home Park is located today.

Building laterals to individual properties was a slow and tedious process. Long lead times did not please customers, who started to prod the current owners to turn the irrigation system over to its users, as stipulated by the Carey Act.

According to a document signed in June 1907, the system was to be handed over to the water users within five years. It took ten years before the first Water User’s Association was formed. In December 1917, the users organized themselves as the Central Oregon Irrigation District. The first board meeting of the newly formed corporation took place in 1918.

There were still battles among competing interests, and the process to relinquish the irrigation system to consumers crawled through the courts over the next three years. The Diedrich Decree finally settled the matter, ordering the Central Oregon Irrigation Company to surrender the system to the Central Oregon Irrigation District.

With the lawsuits in the rearview mirror, the Central Oregon Irrigation District began to build out the system. Twenty years after those first 40 acres were irrigated, COID was supplying water to 28,500 acres, supporting about 2,000 farmers growing crops in the High Desert.

The COID has maintained the irrigation system since 1918. Throughout most of its history, the system was monitored the old-fashioned way. Ditch riders—maintenance people on horseback—rode along the banks of the irrigation canals to identify trouble spots—anything from dead trees in the canals or silt buildup to lava tubes opening up under the riverbanks, siphoning large amounts of water out of the canal. Today, the same maintenance is done via electronic monitoring.

Irrigation water is currently available to approximately 3,600 customers who irrigate 24,000 acres to grow everything from grains to vegetables to hay for raising livestock.

“Water is an economic driver. Jefferson County, in partic- ular, would be far different economically if there wasn’t agriculture, as would Deschutes County,” Nelson pointed out. “I don’t think we value all the agriculture we produce here, or the lifestyle it produces, as much as we should.”

Since the irrigation system is basically the same as it was 120 years ago, issues are emerging. Horrell is amazed it is still working as well.

“It gets the water where it needs to be, but it is not as efficient as it should be,” he commented. “With the technology we have today, there is no way that we would ever have built it this way. But it is amazing that we can still deliver water in it.”

There are new challenges for the 100-year-old company. Throughout most of the 1940s and ’50s, the Deschutes River was treated as an irrigation ditch with seemingly unlimited access to water. But water has become a precious commodity in the rapidly growing area. COID, together with the seven other irrigation districts in the Deschutes Basin, is on a mission to save water.

“We are losing anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of our water through seepage in the main canals,” said Horrell. “That equals approximately 200,000 acre-feet, which is the same size as Wickiup Reservoir. In addition, we are losing about 50,000 acre-feet for on-farm deliveries through inefficiencies in the system.”

The solution to the problem is a controversial topic in Bend. Under Nelson, COID slowly started piping water, but added pressure on the system, together with environmental concerns for the health of the Deschutes River, has made piping even more important.

“All competing needs have to be balanced in some fashion,” said Nelson. “If we are going to be good stewards and save water for other purposes, it means doing projects like piping.”

When it comes to water, looking into the future is like looking into a crystal ball. Both Nelson and Horrell agree that COID will still be around for its 200th anniversary.

“Central Oregon Irrigation District is going to be here for the next 100 years, but we will be a lot more efficient and sustainable,” Horrell affirmed. “We may not see as many canals, but COID will still provide service to our customers.”

Share this post
An aerial view of a body of water.