Guest column: Finding common ground for farmers, food and fish

February 23, 2019
Guest column: Finding common ground for farmers, food and fish


In today’s acrimonious political climate, it’s rare to read stories about public and private entities working together for the common good — particularly when it comes to the environment and limited natural resources.

This is one of those stories.

In 2015, Hood River-based Farmers Conservation Alliance, with support from Energy Trust of Oregon, developed the Irrigation Modernization Program to help irrigation districts and the farmers they serve revolutionize their water delivery systems.

The goal? Improve conservation efforts and keep more water flowing for farmers, food and fish.

In Central Oregon and throughout the western U.S., aging agricultural infrastructure, an expanding population, persistent droughts and declining fish populations are stressing scarce water resources. Farmers rely on irrigation to grow food. But the centuries-old dams and canals that capture and convey this water from rivers to farms can be inefficient — anywhere from 30 to 70 percent may be lost to seepage and evaporation.

The IMP is a comprehensive approach helping farmers and irrigators identify opportunities to modernize decades old practices and infrastructure — the complexities of which would be overwhelming and cost-prohibitive for individual irrigation districts to tackle alone.

This transformative program designs irrigation systems that utilize the best available technologies while reducing the cost and time required for planning and implementation. Key benefits include:

• Water savings: Piping canals optimizes water use while ensuring more water is available for farms, rivers and fish.

• Energy savings: Pipes pressurized by gravity or a central pumping station reduce or eliminate the need for on-farm pumping, saving money and energy.

• Improved stream conditions: Piping canals and their associated water losses mean more water remains in-stream.

• Clean energy production: Surplus water pressure from gravity, either at a farm or in district-owned pipes, can be harnessed to generate hydropower during irrigation season that does not impact fish or wildlife and creates a revenue stream that can help pay for infrastructure projects.

• Accelerated results: Historically, farmers and ranchers have upgraded their infrastructure on a piecemeal, project-by-project basis, which delays conservation benefits.

Irrigation Modernization in Central Oregon would not be progressing as efficiently nor as quickly without the committed cooperation of multiple public and private entities.

FCA along with ETO is working collaboratively with stakeholders across conservation and farming communities to make sure Irrigation Modernization benefits everyone, including the farmers and fish that rely on the Deschutes River. Other collaborators include the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, State of Oregon Clean Water State Revolving Fund, Oregon Water Resources Department, as well as numerous agricultural and conservation groups.

And, thanks to the efforts of U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, Tumalo Irrigation District was recently awarded nearly $29.7 million in federal funding to pipe 68 miles of open irrigation canals. Not only will this save billions of gallons of water annually that benefit the environment, it will also bring high-quality construction jobs to our local economy.

Deschutes Basin irrigation districts are at the forefront of the Irrigation Modernization Program. It’s a testament to the success of the program that 21 of Oregon’s irrigation districts, representing approximately 25 percent of the state’s agricultural water use and all the districts in the Deschutes River watershed, are participating in the Irrigation Modernization Program.

Central Oregon and other regions across the West are faced with the impacts of long-term drought, which threaten our most life-sustaining natural resource. There’s a lot at stake and a lot of competing interests. Modern water management practices are focused on long-term solutions that balance the needs of a healthy environment while ensuring enough water is available to farmers and citizens. It’s a collaborative effort of which Central Oregonians can be proud.

— Mike Britton is president of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control. Gail Snyder is the executive director of the Coalition for the Deschutes.

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An aerial view of a body of water.