Deschutes flows

The intake screen of a Central Oregon Irrigation District canal near the North Canal dam in Bend.

A century ago what was then called The Bend Bulletin would trumpet on its front pages when new irrigation canals were built. The latest completed project, if it had been an appliance, would have been branded: New and improved!

Irrigation canals were the key to making dry land farmable. Canals, though, also took great liberties with the natural flow of the Deschutes River. If we are going to take water from the Deschutes, if we are going to lower its flows as the weather gets drier and hotter, we need to use the water we take efficiently.

The estimates for how much water is lost to seepage or evaporation while moving through unpiped canals, well, we have seen estimates from 30% to 50%. People will argue that the water lost to seepage isn’t such a bad thing because presumably it helps the nearby plant life and recharges the aquifer. While that is true to an extent, it would be better if that water got where it was intended to go so more water didn’t have to be taken out of the river.

That’s why we celebrate when more canals get piped. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, was in Central Oregon recently to launch three more miles of piping construction.

“It’s just a lot drier and a lot hotter,” Merkley told The Madras Pioneer. “We want to continue into the future to make the most of every precious drop of water that we can.”

That particular project is a total of a 7-mile stretch of canal near Smith Rock. It will save an estimated 30 cubic feet per second, or about 10,000 acre-feet of water. Craig Horrell, manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District, said that could have meant that the irrigation season for Jefferson County farmers would have lasted two to three weeks longer. Farmers of the North Unit Irrigation District on the northern end of Central Oregon have the lowest priority water rights in the basin. And so in times of drought, they suffer the most.

Piping canals is expensive. Very expensive. And most of the cost comes from your tax dollars. The bill for the first two years of this project come to $32.8 million. The federal government is pitching in more than $22 million. State lottery funds added another $8.5 million. COID added a couple million dollars more. We need more efforts to encourage more efficient uses of water on farms and hobby farms, as well as these big ticket expenditures.

A century ago the canals themselves were something to celebrate. But now we must treat the water much more carefully as we can expect it will be ever more precious.

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