March 23, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Controversy Surfaces As Canals Are Buried

March 28, 2010
March 23, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Controversy Surfaces As Canals Are Buried

Controversy surfaces as canals are buried

Irrigation districts say it conserves water and money, but as century-old waterways are enclosed in pipe, some landowners are doing all they can to prevent it. This, in turn, doesn't sit too well with their farming neighbors.

By Kate Ramsayer / The Bulletin

Last modified: March 23. 2010 4:20AM PST

SISTERS — Driving up a dusty road toward her McKenzie Canyon property last week, Jan Daggett pointed out where irrigation water created a waterfall before winding down the valley between Sisters and Terrebonne.

“This was the stream over here, where this pile of dirt is,” she said.

The Three Sisters Irrigation District has been replacing its irrigation canal down McKenzie Canyon with a buried pipe, and has completed all but a half-mile of the 12.5-mile project.

That half-mile includes Daggett's property — and earlier this month she sued the district to prevent it from putting the pipe through that stretch. The district is currently preparing a response to the lawsuit.

Aided by millions in federal stimulus dollars, several irrigation districts in Central Oregon have had a busy winter, replacing open canals with pipes. But the controversy over enclosing the century-old canals is still ongoing.

Replacing canal ditches with pipes prevents irrigation water from leaking into the ground, and allows irrigation districts to leave more water flowing in the area's streams and rivers.

The McKenzie Canyon project, which started in 2005, is designed to conserve water and create a pressurized system that would save downstream farmers money, said Marc Thalacker, Three Sisters Irrigation District manager.

It will cost $7 million, including about $465,000 of stimulus funds. The district is also working on a project to pipe 40,000 feet of its main canal and construct a small hydropower facility at the end, which is partially funded with about $2.8 million in stimulus funds.

Three Sisters Irrigation District has already piped about half of its 60 miles of canals, Thalacker said — and hopes to raise funds to complete the rest in the coming years.

“Ultimately, if everything went well, and fewer people threw rocks at us, we would finish piping the district out in 10 years,” he said, noting that the district would leave open a stretch through a golf course due to a previous lawsuit.

The district has the right to pipe the canal, Thalacker said. Maps from the early 1900s show the canal in place before Daggett's property was settled, he said.

“We've worked really hard to try and be good neighbors and settle, but the district has a right-of-way, and it's that simple,” Thalacker said.

But Daggett said she believes the district does not have easements for the property.

And Matt Cyrus, who sued the district several years ago to prevent the section of the canal through the golf course from being replaced, said that the easements for the Three Sisters Irrigation District could be less straightforward than those for other irrigation districts.

An earlier dispute over piping, between Swalley Irrigation District and landowners who wanted to keep open canals through their property, was settled last year in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of the irrigation district — giving the district the right to install pipes.

But that ruling might not apply to Three Sisters, Cyrus said, because of different laws in place when it was formed more than a century ago.

“Just because the district thinks they have easements, doesn't necessarily mean the judge will agree with them,” he said.

Cyrus, who said he had mixed feelings about piping the McKenzie Canyon canal, added that he would like to see a study looking at the impacts of large-scale piping projects on issues like the availability of water for wildlife and domestic water wells.

Daggett said she's also concerned about a number of issues related to the piping project — the effect on domestic wells and the impact of putting pipes down a natural canyon.

“Even if it was dry, it was beautiful,” Daggett said.

But some of her farming neighbors downstream on the canal, including Glenn Cooper, are concerned about what will happen if Daggett's lawsuit succeeds in stopping the piping project.

“We're allowed to pipe this, and I don't know why she's filing a suit like this because if she stops the water to Lower Bridge, there's 2,000 acres here that won't be irrigated,” Cooper said. “There'll be farmers here put out of business.”

Cooper is now planting seed crops — grass, carrots and sugar beets — and said he has to have water in about three weeks to keep the fields from drying out.

Cooper has worked welding the sections of pipe together, and said that the project would not work if it was missing a section of pipe through Daggett's property. The water coming down the pipe is going too fast, and under too much pressure, he said, and would carry rocks and debris into the downstream stretches of pipe already in place.

Beyond the Three Sisters Irrigation District, other Central Oregon districts are going forward with additional piping projects.

Swalley Irrigation District will soon finish a $14 million, 5.1-mile piping project, thanks in part to about $5 million in stimulus funds, said district manager Suzanne Butterfield.

And district officials are working to raise funds to do more projects in the coming years, she said.

The Central Oregon Irrigation District received $4 million in stimulus funds through the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and another $1 million of stimulus funds through the Deschutes River Conservancy, to help replace sections of its canal through Juniper Ridge with pipe.

Sue Vernon, who has lived along the district's main canal for 30 years, said she fears the canal through her property is one of the next in line.

“We have wildlife, and it's aesthetically pleasing,” she said of the canal's benefits. “That's why we bought this piece of property — because we can see the mountains, and we have water,” she said.

Neighbors were told the district wasn't going to be installing pipe in their area for a while, she said. But recently, surveyors showed up on the property. Vernon said she hates the thought of heavy equipment in her yard, working on the project — and also what would happen after crews are done.

“Where you were once sitting on your patio, looking at the water going by, and now you're looking at a big hump of dirt,” she said.

Kate Ramsayer can be reached at 541-617-7811 or at


Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2010

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