Districts make last-ditch effort to conserve water for Deschutes River

December 12, 2020
Districts make last-ditch effort to conserve water for Deschutes River

As farmers across Central Oregon face a third straight year of drought, and wildlife in this region’s rivers teeter on the brink of extinction, those who control the flow of water are primed to pump millions of dollars into infrastructure in a last-ditch effort to help both people and wildlife.

Central Oregon Irrigation District, the largest district in Central Oregon in terms of patrons, is at the vanguard of this effort and expects to pour $100 million over the next decade to pipe a significant portion of its open canals and ditches, said Craig Horrell, the district’s general manager. Tens of millions more will be spent by other irrigation districts in the area.

The two-pronged disaster to both wildlife and the farming community is connected to climate change, as nature simply isn’t delivering the snowpack that it did in decades past. But it’s also a human-caused problem because the irrigation canals in Central Oregon, built more than a century ago, are so porous that they lose half the water that enters them before it can reach its destination.

COID estimates that its Central Oregon canal loses 99 cubic feet of water per second. The district’s Pilot Butte Canal loses 158 cubic feet per second. One cubic foot of water is equivalent to 7.48 gallons of water.

Over the past 12 years, the irrigation districts have overcome differences to form a united front to tackle their collective problem and figure out a way to conserve water for themselves and the environment. Known as the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, that collective is on the brink of finalizing its Habitat Conservation Plan that commits them to water conservation for the next three decades. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service anticipates the plan will be approved by the end of the year.

The plan doesn’t require the districts to pipe their canals — water conservation can also be done through water marketing and on-farm improvements — but with federal funding available to them through grants, piping is certain to feature prominently in their projects.

Central Oregon Irrigation District’s current piping effort is focused on a section of canal between Redmond and Smith Rock. That 8-mile stretch will cost $33 million to pipe and will conserve around 30 cubic feet of water, or 9,392 acre-feet annually.

On deck is a $6 million project to pipe lateral ditches near Smith Rock. On-farm efficiency projects will also be funded.

Other districts are pitching in too. North Unit Irrigation District will construct approximately $32 million in piping projects over the next decade. Swalley Irrigation District will spend $11.8 million over the same period.

The goal of all this piping, as set out in the Habitat Conservation Plan, is to increase the winter flows in the Deschutes to 300 cubic feet per second by 2028. The current winter flow is 105 cubic feet per second.

In exchange for meeting that target, the districts will receive incidental take permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which allows them to operate without the threat of litigation from environmental groups. The wildlife service is expected to make a final permit decision on the plan before the end of this month.

Increasing the flow will benefit Oregon spotted frog habitat, which has been degraded by years of low winter flows and wide swings from winter to high summer flows. Threatened fish in the Deschutes, including red band trout, will also benefit.

Meeting targets likely means piping all 26 miles of the Pilot Butte Canal, said Horrell, a project that could make up the bulk of the $100 million his district plans to spend.

While piping the big canals makes headlines and carries the heaviest expense, piping lateral ditches is also crucial to conserving water, said Kate Fitzpatrick, director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, a nonprofit group that is helping the districts to fund the piping projects.

“We will be working with landowners to incentivize as much of this work as possible to maximize project benefits for the river,” Fitzpatrick added.

Horrell said that irrigation districts and farmers are also spending their own money to improve on-farm operations and delivery systems. Water marketing and leasing are also important components of the overall water-saving plan.

“To meet the lofty goals of the HCP, and to get to 300 cfs in seven years, we will use a variety of tools, including water leasing, water marketing and piping,” said Horrell.

The piping projects are largely dependent on federal funding through the federal Watershed Program known as PL-566, which authorizes the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help local organizations protect and restore watersheds up to 250,000 acres. Funding is currently set at $150 million annually.

The plans to pipe are a team effort. The city of Prineville joined the eight irrigation districts in Central Oregon to submit the Habitat Conservation Plan, and a handful of environmental nonprofits are also teaming up with the districts to collaborate on projects and funding.

“All districts have been actively ramping up to modernize and pipe as much as possible within this decade,” said Jeremiah “Jer” Camarata, general manager for Swalley, which covers 4,331 acres north of Bend and near Tumalo.

But the funding that everyone is counting on to make these pipe projects work is far from certain. Government resources also play a role, and going forward, a post-COVID-19 world could be one of tight resources.

“Each year Congress has to appropriate funds and the state-based programs also depend on variables such as lottery dollars,” said Camarata. “So there are no guarantees that projects will get funded in any given year, which would clearly push the timelines back.”

Reporter: 541-617-7818,

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An aerial view of a body of water.