Guest column: Protect Central Oregon’s historic canal system

Apr 29, 2019

Bend Bulletin

Guest column: Protect Central Oregon’s historic canal system

By Mike Zapp 

Within the city limits of Bend, we are blessed to have inherited the iconic Deschutes River, which snakes gracefully through our town. In addition, canal water is diverted from the Deschutes River for irrigation, creating more scenic waterways, wildlife habitats and serene hiking trails. Visitors marvel at our abundant water resources and are surprised by all the waterways our city has enjoyed for over 100 years.

Bend’s history and development is based upon its water resources. Other cities around the country have spent millions trying to creating what Bend already has. Waterways attract wildlife, and wildlife attracts people. All life is attracted to water. It’s the water that creates an amazing feeling of tranquility and harmony. Even in winter when our canals stop flowing, we are left with hundreds of ponds, or as I like to say high desert lagoons that team with life. These ponds sustain life through the winter and support many creatures, maintaining the food chain all the way up to golden eagles and human fly casters. Yes, there are fish in our canals!

Why on Earth does someone want to cover up our canals? They say we have a seepage and evaporation problem, and they claim the only way to fix this problem is to enclose the canal water in a pipe. They have chosen the most expensive and most damaging option. The seepage issue can be fixed without expensive pipes and heavy construction. Other options surely exist, like waterproofing and sealing the canals where leakage is excessive with wildlife-safe liquid rubber or waterproof concrete sealant.

We should focus on those canals within our city limits that have maintained walkways or trails next to or within sight of these canals. I believe our city should put a piping moratorium on all existing canals with these specific traits. False comparisons, misleading assumptions and fear tactics have been created to push through the piping agenda. By assuming that piping and covering up the canals is the only solution, we will destroy century-old habitats and trails. Sealing and protecting these canals preserves habitats, home values and increases water conservation all at the same time.

There are inherent risks around all open water. However, our canals have a better safety record than our own Deschutes River. Education, signage and supervision are the practical solution towards zero injuries.

I’ve been researching our canal system for years. Bend’s canals, ponds and river-walks are unique and unmatchable. That’s because it would cost billions to re-create this paradise in any other well-established city as ours. Our canals were built over 100 years ago, before almost 100,000 people lived here. Homes and trails have naturally developed around most of these canals. Again, that’s because people like to be around water. After a century, our canals have become much more than just a water source for farmers.

Another fear is water loss through evaporation. Evaporation within city limits is insignificant and a small price to pay for water’s ability to soothe our senses and enrich our community. Utilizing new irrigation technologies would allow farmers to use a fraction of their present water requirements. Moreover, old water laws such as “use it or lose it,” which encourage water waste, should be updated. Fixing old water laws, implementing new irrigation technologies and sealing the seepage is not only sensible, it’s cheaper and less destructive.

Seal the leaks, stop the cover-up!

— Mike Zapp is a retired forest ranger and lives in Bend.

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