Homeowners whose properties wind along a slow-moving canal in northeast Bend are rallying against an irrigation district’s plan to fill nearly a mile of the canal with closed piping.
The proposal by the Central Oregon Irrigation District would devastate property values, the homeowners say, and set a dangerous precedent in the county, potentially threatening hundreds of miles of historic and tranquil canals. Residents along both banks of the canal say it offers a river-like charm, attracts small wildlife and makes time in the backyard more peaceful.
Irrigation district officials say they need to replace part of the open Pilot Butte Canal with a closed-pipe system, to keep water from leaking into the ground before it can be used by farmers east of Bend.
A total of 4,500 feet of the canal would be replaced with enclosed piping, starting between Northeast 18th Street and Old Deschutes Road and going upstream to meet a section the district piped off more than 10 years ago. The area is just beyond Bend’s city limits.
But nearly 80 community members packed a meeting with members of the Deschutes County Planning Commission on Thursday, with more than a dozen people saying the irrigation district has bullied and intimidated them into accepting the plan.
Late last year, irrigation district staff went to collect signatures from homeowners along the canal but many of the homeowners wouldn’t sign, according to district officials.
Some speakers on Thursday said they felt District Manager Steve Johnson was trying to intimidate them into signing without letting them see any of the documents.
The residents own the land the canal sits on, but the irrigation district has federally recognized rights to use the canal.
Tom Hignell has lived on Country View Lane along the canal since 1996. He said Thursday the irrigation district is trying to get “special treatment” from Deschutes County at the expense of property owners.
The controversy centers on the district’s request to change county code in low-density residential areas. COID submitted an application to the county in December proposing to add “Operation, maintenance and piping of existing irrigation systems operated by an irrigation district” as an accepted use in these low-density areas. Without the code change, the district would need a conditional-use permit to change the canal.
Hignell said the code change, if accepted, would give the district the right to eliminate more of its canals, many of which are more than 100 years old.
Central Oregon Irrigation District is “working hard to bully this application through to approval,” Hignell said, “and in the process take away all our current rights to a fair and open hearing.”
Johnson didn’t attend the hearing, nor did an attorney representing the district. Planning commissioners said their absence made it difficult to reach a decision in the case, and they scheduled an additional hearing for March 27.
But their decision isn’t binding. Deschutes County commissioners will ultimately decide if the piping project moves forward or not, and their decision could be months away.
Reached by phone Friday, Johnson said the piping project is necessary to maintain steady water pressure as the canal flows out of the Deschutes River. He said state and federal regulations require the district to maintain water flows of about 250 cubic feet per second, but the Pilot Butte Canal flows more slowly. That warms the temperature of the water and potentially threatens fish. Meanwhile, water that seeps into the soil below the canal is taken out of supply and doesn’t get to the roughly 4,000 COID customers, many of them farmers.
“We’re trying to focus on preservation of the irrigation district and the preservation of farming,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to meet these federal regulations and requirements, and now we’re caught between these landowners and the regulations.”
But property owners Thursday said pushing through a code change with the county is an effort to keep people opposed to the project from speaking out. Several speakers said closing the canal would reduce their property values by as much as $150,000 and have negative impacts on their quality of life.
Some audience members wore stickers reading “Don’t devalue our properties.”
Del Swan has lived on Overtree Road at the north edge of the open canal for 21 years. He said COID has gone on his property without permission in the past to do excavation work at the canal and fears more intrusions would continue if it moves ahead with the canal piping project.
The irrigation district “has already demonstrated their complete disrespect for my property,” Swan said. “This is effectively taking away my rights as a property owner in Deschutes County.”
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