OR farmers, fish benefit from critical hydropower, irrigation improvements

October 19, 2015
OR farmers, fish benefit from critical hydropower, irrigation improvements

BEND, OR, Oct. 19, 2015 -- On Friday, Oct. 16, the Three Sisters Irrigation District and Energy Trust of Oregon held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Watson Hydroelectric Facility, capping a decade of its investments in efficient irrigation. The facility uses pressure from irrigation pipes to generate renewable electricity, while delivering much-needed water to the District's farmers and maintaining flows in Whychus Creek. The improvements help strengthen Deschutes Basin agriculture, increase drought resilience and bolster the region's economy.

Three Sisters Irrigation District increased the efficiency of its water delivery systems with help and support from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Deschutes River Conservancy, Energy Trust, and many other stakeholders. By enclosing and installing more than 50 miles of pipe in more than 75 percent of its open canals, the District has been able to continue delivering irrigation water to farmers during historic drought conditions, even while improving stream flows for basin fish populations.

"The work done by Three Sisters Irrigation District is a powerful example of how irrigation modernization can address multiple challenges and provide multiple benefits," said U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley. "The potential exists over the next decade for irrigation districts across the state to upgrade to more modern infrastructure, saving water, restoring streams and generating green, renewable energy. These investments in irrigation systems are also investments in the future resiliency, competitiveness and livability of Oregon's rural economies."

Moving from open canals to irrigation pipes has enabled the district to remove more than 100 individual irrigator pumps, saving farmers and ranchers thousands of dollars on their energy bills. The 700-kilowatt Watson Hydroelectric Facility is located at the end of the main pipeline. Completed in 2014, it generates about 3.1 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually -- enough to power about 275 average Oregon homes.

"For the first time since the late 1800s, there was summertime flow in Whychus Creek for salmon and steelhead. We have 25 percent more water on farm compared to the 1977 drought, and we are generating clean, green, renewable power and conserving energy," said Marc Thalacker, district manager, Three Sisters Irrigation District. "Cooperation and collaboration by a wide variety of Central Oregon stakeholders made it possible for us to achieve these significant changes."

Over the last 10 years, the District leveraged more than $15 million in grant funds for more than $25 million in irrigation modernization projects. For the Watson plant, support included a $1-million cash incentive from Energy Trust. "Other Oregon irrigation districts will benefit from the many benefits demonstrated through the Three Sisters Irrigation District project," said Peter West, director of energy programs, Energy Trust. "Energy Trust will continue to support these projects, including an additional investment of $1 million in support of irrigation modernization planning in the Deschutes Basin starting in 2016."

Three Sisters Irrigation District's success has been magnified through a Bridging the Headgates partnership between the Natural Resource Conservation Service and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The Deschutes River Conservancy helped the District secure grants through multiple sources over the 10-year effort, including the Pelton Fund, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and many others. Three Sisters Irrigation District received a $1-million grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's WaterSMART program that helped fund the hydroelectric facility.

Revenues from the Watson Hydroelectric Facility will help pay back a loan from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Clean Water State Revolving Fund that financed an earlier piping project.

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An aerial view of a body of water.