Three Sisters Irrigation District has proved streams, fish and irrigators all can prosper when irrigation is handled properly.
The district, the oldest in Deschutes County, was formed in 1891. Almost all irrigation districts operating in the county today or their predecessors were up and running before the 1920s. North Unit district, which serves Jefferson County farmers and draws water from Wickiup Reservoir, was not operating until 1949. The districts turned the High Desert green by taking water from the Deschutes River and its tributaries and in doing so drew people to the area.
Neither the districts’ creators, their water users nor anyone else was concerned much about things such as fish habitat, streamflow or water temperature, all of which are considered critical today.
That shift is partly responsible for the current push to improve districts’ efficiency. Canals across Central Oregon were carved through rock and earth or built of wood. They leaked terribly, and evaporation took a toll — so much so that some districts saw more than half their water disappear into the air or ground.
Piping water solves that problem and leaves more water in the rivers and streams in the process.
Just ask the folks who run the Three Sisters district. The district and Energy Trust of Oregon late last week completed a decade’s worth of combined efforts and money to pipe some 75 percent of the district’s canals and build a small hydropower project, which will produce enough electricity to serve about 275 homes. They’ve spent about $15 million doing so.
They have also returned water to Whychus Creek in the summer, creating a welcoming environment when native steelhead start to return after more than a century-long absence. And, even in this dry summer, customers continued to receive water all season.
Good things happen when conservation measures, including piping, take place.