Irrigation district prevails in Central Oregon hydropower dispute

March 4, 2022
Irrigation district prevails in Central Oregon hydropower dispute

By Mateusz Perkowski

A hydropower facility proposed by an irrigation district in Central Oregon isn’t subject to additional stream improvement requirements, according to a state land use ruling.

The state’s Land Use Board of Appeals has rejected a challenge filed by the Central Oregon Landwatch nonprofit against a hydroelectric project planned by the Three Sisters Irrigation District.

The farmland conservation group said it’s simply trying to ensure everyone plays by the same rules, but the irrigation district said the case amounts to "blackmail."

“Landwatch were basically trying to blackmail us,” said Marc Thalacker, the irrigation district’s manager. “They tried to weaponize the land use system.”

Central Oregon Landwatch claims money generated by the hydropower project must be devoted to stream health, while the irrigation district said it’s already met that obligation.

“We’ve already conserved the water and put it in-stream. The water is protected in perpetuity,” Thalacker said. “Anything that would have been required, we’d already done and paid for it.”

The hydroelectric turbine would be powered by water flowing through a pressurized irrigation pipeline.

The project is part of a broader strategy of saving water by replacing open canals with pipes, which has improved stream flows, said Thalacker.

The hydroelectric facility will be the third installed by the irrigation district, which has replaced 5.5 miles of open main canals with pipelines as part of a $10 million investment in modernization, he said.

According to LUBA, Deschutes County correctly approved the hydropower project without requiring the irrigation district to submit plans and set aside money for stream enhancement.

The hydropower project is on an irrigation canal and doesn’t directly affect Whychus Creek, so it’s not subject to those criteria, according to the decision.

Central Oregon Landwatch disagrees with LUBA’s ruling but hasn’t yet decided whether to challenge it before the Oregon Court of Appeals, said Rory Isbell, the nonprofit’s attorney.“We are still discussing our next steps in the case,” he said.

The county’s regulations clearly state that hydropower revenues must be dedicated to stream health, but the irrigation district isn’t living up to that requirement, he said.“Central Oregon Landwatch found that to be inconsistent with Deschutes County code, which is why we appealed to LUBA,” Isbell said.

The hydropower project’s placement on an existing irrigation pipeline that diverts water from the creek doesn’t exempt it from that requirement, he said.

“We’re not opposed to this type of hydroelectric facility, per se, but we do expect them to comply with the county code,” Isbell said.

Flows in Whychus Creek regularly drop to levels that are lethal to threatened steelhead, which is why the nonprofit wants the irrigation district to invest hydropower revenues in stream enhancement, he said.

“The responsibility is in their hands to increase stream flows to benefit fish,” Isbell said.

The irrigation district can improve stream flows with water efficiency measures and piping smaller lateral canals to prevent seepage and evaporation, he said. “There are myriad options.”

Thalacker of Three Sisters Irrigation District said the pipeline has already increased stream flows and enhanced Whychus Creek, so the project doesn’t have to comply with those conditions twice.

“We’ve done all that in advance,” he said, adding that the pipeline must be installed first for the hydropower turbine to work. “There’s no need for a plan. We’re finished.”

The nonprofit is seeking to have even more water devoted to stream flows, but the irrigation district can’t go beyond the amount conserved by the pipeline, he said.

Doing that would infringe on the water rights of farmers in the irrigation district, running afoul of state water law, Thalacker said. “We’d get sued by our own patrons.”

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