Lake Billy Chinook pumping project moves forward as North Unit tries to overcome water shortage

February 18, 2024
Lake Billy Chinook pumping project moves forward as North Unit tries to overcome water shortage

Farmers in Jefferson County have long eyed Lake Billy Chinook as a possible source of irrigation water to green up their parched fields. North Unit Irrigation District says a plan to tap into the vast water body is finally taking shape.

Next month the irrigation district says it will complete a study for the Lake Billy Chinook pumping project, one of the first steps in making the concept a reality.

The study evaluates possible locations of the pumping facility and makes recommendations if they warrant further consideration in a full-fledged feasibility study. Mike Britton, executive director of North Unit, said all indications are that a feasibility analysis is being recommended based on the results of the study.Water rights and operation costs are two areas of the study that will be looked at early on in the feasibility study, Britton said.

Central Oregon’s five-year drought has devastated farms in North Unit, a district that struggles to access water even in years when water is plentiful because of its junior water rights status.

Evan Thomas, co-president of the Jefferson County Seed Growers Association, said his revenue two years ago was just 31% of what he earned in the pre-drought years.

“2023 was a little better, but not by much,” said Thomas.

Thomas and other North Unit patrons see the pumping project as a potential savior for their farms as its construction will guarantee a consistent source of water, even in drought years.

How it might look

Here’s how it works. Under the plan, existing pumps located on the Crooked River would be retired and an entirely new pumping station would be built downstream on the shores of Lake Billy Chinook.

North Unit has a water right for 200 cubic feet per second, per day, on the Crooked River but in times of low water the district’s ability to pump water from the river is limited. Relocating pumps downstream at the lake would give the district a more reliable source of water that is not reliant on the ups and downs of the fickle Crooked River.

The project could boost North Unit’s water supply by 40,000 to 60,000 acre-feet of water per year, said Britton. That is roughly equivalent to a quarter of Wickiup Reservoir’s total storage capacity.

Lake Billy Chinook is not a natural body of water. It was formed in 1964 after the construction of the Round Butte Dam, a 440-foot-high rock-filled embankment dam located near the confluence of the Deschutes, Metolius and Crooked rivers.

Plans for the new station include the ability to pump 400 cubic feet of water per second in case North Unit can negotiate an agreement to purchase water from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which has a 200 cfs water right at Lake Billy Chinook.

The project does have its share of hurdles. Cost is one. Early analysis put the price tag at $350 million to $400 million. Then, once it’s built, the annual cost to power the facility could be $5 million to $10 million, a large sum for a district with an annual budget of $6 million.

Before construction, funds will need to be raised for the project’s analysis phase.

Price tag reductions

The project will likely require an analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, an environmental law signed into law in 1970. The entire feasibility analysis is expected to cost $5.3 million to complete.

Britton said project costs will change over time and the district will look for ways to reduce the high price tag. Options include the use of renewable energy — hydro or solar power, or a combination of both.

“There’s a lot of work being done in the renewable energy field and if we can tap into that it would be of great benefit to the project,” said Britton. “And likely a more complicated component would be some kind of subsidized power rate which is not unheard of in irrigation communities.”

Subsidies for irrigation districts are often agreements between federal agencies and utility companies or power wholesalers. They are designed to assist and guarantee U.S. food production.

The district has requested funding from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation under that agency’s Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Program, the same program that awarded North Unit $5.9 million in December to replace aging fish screens where its canal begins on the Deschutes River.

Through this program, the federal government helps pay for the study, design and construction of projects that benefit aquatic ecosystems that have regional benefits and help improve fisheries and wildlife.

Environmental benefits

The project potentially benefits river ecosystems by reducing the demand for water from Wickiup Reservoir and the Upper Deschutes Basin, as well as the Crooked River itself.

In the Lower Crooked River, the project will improve river flow and water quantity, and offer more flexibility in the way the system is managed from Prineville Reservoir to Lake Billy Chinook, said Britton.

Tod Heisler, a consultant to Central Oregon LandWatch for its rivers program, said the high cost of the project is a significant hurdle to overcome but from an environmental perspective, the project may have benefits that warrant its continued investigation.

“The devil is in the details,” said Heisler. “It depends on where they put it and how they operate it.”Heisler said pumping from Lake Billy Chinook could help increase water flows in the Upper Deschutes River, a critical habitat for the threatened Oregon spotted frog. He is also enthusiastic about the possibility of restoring the lower Crooked River by moving the pumps downstream.

“I can see that there is the potential for some benefits,” he said, adding that there are questions about how the project may impact the Lower Deschutes River below Lake Billy Chinook, an important fishery.

Studies should investigate how a pump station will affect water quality, water temperature and flow downstream, he said.“There are so many details to understand but it could be beneficial,” said Heisler. “It could be operated to the benefit of the river.”

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An aerial view of a body of water.