January 31, 2012 - OPB - Crooked River Irrigation Deal Benefits Farmers And Fish

Jan 31, 2012

January 31, 2012 - OPB - Crooked River Irrigation Deal Benefits Farmers And Fish

Crooked River Irrigation Deal Benefits Farmers And Fish

David Nogueras | Jan. 30, 2012 6:14 p.m. | Updated: Jan. 30, 2012 7:24 p.m. |
Bend, OR

For years now, an effort has been underway to reintroduce steelhead and salmon to Central Oregon’s Deschutes River Basin. One of the biggest challenges has been the Crooked River. In the summer months, farmers use irrigation to take large quantities of water out of the river to put on their fields. Now, a conservation group is working with farmers to keep the water in the river, by conserving water somewhere else.

East of Bend construction workers are upgrading a zig-zagging route of irrigation channels that run all the way to up Madras. These channels are empty now. But in the spring and summer, it’s not unusual to see water levels reach 5 feet or higher as gravity pulls the water along a continuously steady slope.

That natural efficiency, however is undercut by Mother Nature. The ground here is volcanic, fractured and and leaks like a sieve. About 50 percent all the water is lost in transmission, says Mike Britton, manager of the North Unit Irrigation District.

“The water loss for us is huge because we’re the junior water right holder on the river which means we’re the last to get the water that’s available,” says Britton. And in years when there’s not enough water, the district is forced to rely on a secondary source - the Crooked River. That’s expensive for the farmers since it requires electricity to run the pumps.

But Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, says it’s also deadly for the salmon and steelhead.

“As they pump the water, particularly in the hotter months, we see the temperatures rise below those pumps substantially. And so it’s that spike in temperature that creates essentially a lethal barrier for fish,” says Heisler.

So for the last few years Heisler has been working with Mike Britton and and farmers of the North Unit Irrigation District to turn what had been lose-lose situation in to a win-win.
Construction workers are now lining and piping nearly 5 miles of the main canal. It’s being paid for using a mix of state, federal and hydro-mitigation funds. This first phase of the initiative will cost about 3 million dollars.Thanks to an agreement between the North Unit irrigation District, the Deschutes River Conservancy and the state of Oregon, every drop of water saved here means more water will remain in the Crooked River.

Martin Richards says that’s a good thing. He grows carrot seed, grass seed, and other crops on about 600 acres outside of Madras. He's also on the North Unit Irrigation District’s board. He says the deal saves farmers money, and is environmentally proactive.

“If we’re not willing do to listen to and work with the other side, we do it at our own peril,” Richrads says it's better to craft a deal than wind up in a messy lawsuit over water rights. “Usually in those instances, the only people who do well are the attorneys.”

The DRC’s Tod Heisler seems to agree. He hopes to use the Crooked River initiative as a model for working with irrigation districts. But he says in order for an initiative of this size to succeed, the approach has to focus on building consensus.

“It’s about collaboration it’s about sitting down with farmers and saying what do you need and how can we help you and in return how can you help us,” says Heisler.

He admits that much more will need to be done to restore salmon and steelhead populations to historic levels. He believes the only real way to get there is by finding common ground.

© 2012 OPB

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