May 5, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Piping irrigation canals is good for our rivers

May 18, 2010
May 5, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Piping irrigation canals is good for our rivers

Piping irrigation canals is good for our rivers

By Tod Heisler / Bulletin guest columnist

Published: May 05. 2010 4:00AM PST

The Deschutes River Conservancy believes that restoring streamflow through canal piping is vital to addressing the long-term health of our local rivers and streams. Canal piping is the best and most cost-effective approach to permanently restore our rivers while benefitting farmers. Consider this: The canals that crisscross Central Oregon are the basin’s plumbing. They leak approximately 50 percent of their water before they reach a farm. Leaky plumbing is bad plumbing. Leaky canals that lose half of their water need to be fixed.

Because of the leaky plumbing, irrigation districts have to divert twice the amount of water than they need to serve their patrons — an extremely inefficient and antiquated system. Piping or lining canals prevents irrigation water from leaking into the ground, greatly reducing irrigation diversions. The water conserved by these projects is permanently restored in the river. That’s a better outcome.

True, wildlife do use these open canals. And the water that leaks out of the canals and into our groundwater would eventually rejoin the river — up to 40 miles downstream from where it was diverted. We know that having water in a natural system, a river or stream, as opposed to an artificial one, a canal, generates a much larger ecological benefit. Increased streamflow gives us improved water quality and a better functioning ecosystem. In the long run, this is much healthier for everything that depends on the river or stream — vegetation, insects, wildlife, fish and people.

Settlers didn’t consider these concepts in the 1800s and 1900s when they diverted virtually all of the Deschutes River, Tumalo Creek and Whychus Creek to feed growing families, produce crops and water livestock. Today, we expect that irrigation projects will go hand in hand with efforts to improve fish and wildlife. The formation of the Deschutes River Conservancy was central to this new cooperative approach. Seeking a better way to meet growing water needs, local irrigation districts, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, and Environmental Defense formed the DRC to proactively restore streamflow and improve water quality in the Deschutes Basin. We exist to build consensus among disparate stakeholders about the best way to restore the Deschutes River and its tributaries. We hope that future generations will benefit from our restoration work and enjoy the same quality of life that we do today.

This strategy has produced concrete results. The DRC has worked with five of the eight irrigation districts in Central Oregon to pipe and line sections of their irrigation canals. These water conservation projects have permanently restored 80 cubic feet per second, the equivalent of 52 million gallons per day, to the Deschutes River and its tributaries. The DRC fully supports our local irrigation districts’ conservation efforts. We believe they are the key to sustaining agricultural water supplies, saving energy, reducing safety concerns, lowering irrigation district operations and maintenance costs while enhancing streamflows for fish, wildlife and people.

We also recognize that this new cooperative approach is not fully understood or supported by everyone. Historically, restoration approaches have relied too much on litigation. We only need to look to the decades of controversy in the Klamath Basin to know that there must be a better way. We think that collaborating with our partners to meet all of our water needs is preferable to litigation.

Rather than litigate and legislate our way to a healthy environment, we provide positive incentives to change the way in which water is managed. We help local farmers to become more economically sustainable and efficient while we restore our rivers. As a result, they will continue to provide the open space, wildlife habitat, and food that is absolutely essential to our local way of life. Canal piping projects, in turn, help to create a thriving ecosystem for fish, wildlife and people. These efforts support the local economy and quality of life that has become synonymous with our region.

Tod Heisler is executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy.

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

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