Water is too precious in Central Oregon to be mismanaged. But it could be about to happen, again. A section of the Central Oregon Canal operated by Central Oregon Irrigation District could join the National Register of Historic Places. The section covers about 3½ miles between Ward Road and Gosney Road, south of U.S. Highway 20.
If it becomes historic, it would likely never be able to be piped. And irrigation pipes win the contest of water efficiency.
It’s difficult to say exactly how much water could be saved by piping that stretch. It might be anywhere from 5 cubic feet per second to about 40 cubic feet per second. Generally, piping is done because about 50 percent of the water flowing through open canals never reaches the destination. Piping can also build pressure for clean hydropower.
Irrigation canals were built historically to support agriculture. It undermines that historic goal to deny the ability to pipe a canal for efficiency. Piping a canal also can mean more water can be left in the Deschutes River to keep it healthy. That should be enough to end the debate right there.
Some people argue leaky canals are beneficial because they help recharge the aquifer. But that artificial recharge comes at the expense of more natural flows in the river and the ecosystems that depend on them, according to Kate Fitzpatrick, program director of the Deschutes River Conservancy.
Two important stretches of COID canals have already been declared historic. How many more historic stretches does Central Oregon need? One is a short stretch in Redmond. It will be primarily just a water feature. The main flow of the canal will actually be piped nearby. The second is at Brasada Ranch. Old wood structures still exist. The plan is to make both sites easily accessible to the public and set up kiosks or signs to explain the historic significance.
That’s surely enough to mark the historic significance of canals in Central Oregon. The goal should be to ensure more water is used efficiently, not to declare more old ditches as historic ditches.