North Unit weighs options for new water source

March 6, 2020
North Unit weighs options for new water source

District has considered wells and a new reservoir

By Michael Kohn

Building a new reservoir, drilling new wells to tap into underground aquifers and pumping water out of Lake Billy Chinook are among the high cost options under consideration by the North Unit Irrigation District to gather new water supplies. In the face of chronic water shortages in Wickiup Reservoir, North Unit has been looking to diversify its water sources.

While no plans have been formalized, Marty Richards, north unit’s chairman, said some work has been made to evaluate the options and costs. However, most plans appear more expensive compared to existing plans that involve working with other irrigation districts to conserve water currently pulled from the Deschutes River, Richards stressed.

“These are possibilities, not probabilities,” said Richards. “The best thing we can do is work with Central Oregon Irrigation District to transfer water, but if that were to fall apart, we could look at other options.”

North Unit has looked into new sources of water because its current main source of water, Wickiup Reservoir, has struggled to fill to capacity in recent years. Wickiup Reservoir is expected to reach 75% of capacity this year.

When Wickiup can’t fill from groundwater and snowmelt, North Unit patrons must fallow a percentage of their fields, usually 20% to 30%. Leaving fields fallow results in lower profits for Jefferson County farmers.

Monner Reservoir
North Unit has explored the creation of a reservoir close to its patrons in Jefferson County. Known as Monner Reservoir, the man-made lake could be as large as 70,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot of water is the amount of water needed to cover 1 acre with 1 foot of water. By comparison, Wickiup, which is in southern Deschutes County, has a capacity of 200,000 acre-feet.

By constructing a reservoir, North Unit would be able to store winter and spring flow from Wickiup, to be used during the summer irrigation season. North Unit has been releasing more water from Wickiup in recent winters to comply with regulations established to protect the Oregon spotted frog, which is listed under the Endangered Species Act.

But there are hurdles in building a new reservoir, said Richards, because there are underground gas and power lines beneath the site, located approximately 4 miles east of Madras, just north of the Deer Ridge Correctional Facility.

Increase Haystack
Increasing the size of Haystack Reservoir, which the district uses to store water before it is distributed in Jefferson County, is another possibility. Haystack has a capacity of 5,600 acre-feet.

The district could also pump water out of Lake Billy Chinook or drill wells, said Mike Britton, general manager for North Unit. But any new infrastructure project could cost more than the district is willing to spend.

“Based on the scale of these projects, I am assuming they will come with significant costs, in the hundreds of millions, and other significant environmental and logistical hurdles,” Britton said. “Honestly, the costs and the hurdles could make them infeasible projects.”

Crooked River pumping
North Unit is already pumping water out of the Crooked River to make up for some of the shortages at Wickiup.

Last year, North Unit paid $362,000 in electricity costs to pump the water from the Crooked River to its canal. The district also paid $46,000 in usage fees to the Bureau of Reclamation for the water it pumped.

Even with the pumped water from the Crooked River, North Unit patrons were still not able to receive a standard allotment of water last year. Patrons received 1.5 acre-feet of water, which is 75% of normal.

“That’s a number that doesn’t cover a lot of ground,” said Britton. “The allotment last year hadn’t been seen in decades.”

When Wickiup is full, North Unit patrons can expect to receive 2.25 acre-feet of water in an irrigation season. North Unit has not yet announced how much water will be delivered to its patrons this year.

Junior rights holder
North Unit’s water allotment is based on its water right, which is the most junior among the water districts that pull water from the Deschutes River. Districts that have older water rights receive larger water allotments.

In 2019, Central Oregon Irrigation District delivered 5.44 acre-feet of water to its patrons — more than double the amount of water delivered to North Unit farmers.

COID’s water right dates to 1900 while North Unit’s water right dates to 1916.

While North Unit mulls its options to tap into other water resources, the district is working on improvements within its existing infrastructure to prevent water loss.

Piping ditches
North Unit gave itself a boost with the recent $10 million Mud Springs-Gateway Project, which piped 10 miles of open ditches and provided pressurized water to some of its patrons.

While the irrigation districts can tap into federal dollars for projects, they can also spend their own reserves. North Unit’s budget for 2020 is $4.5 million, said Britton.

In addition to finding new water resources and improving its own delivery, North Unit continues to work with other irrigation districts to improve water efficiency and reduce their usage of Deschutes River water.

When other districts can conserve water — by converting canals to pipes or making farms more efficient — more water can be made available for North Unit.

“As a junior water rights holder, you have to live with what you got,” said Mike Kirsch, a North Unit board member. “With piping, we can get more water in our hands from what the other districts save.”

Reporter: 541-617-7818,

Share this post