Critical water infrastructure upgrade begins in Deschutes River Basin

Critical water infrastructure upgrade begins in Deschutes River Basin

Group of people holding shovels

Three irrigation districts in the Deschutes River Basin are embarking on a major effort to modernize infrastructure serving 2,500 farmers and producers and 85,000 acres of land. Once complete, the upgrade will save energy and millions of gallons of water each year, lowering costs for Oregon farmers.

On October 20, Energy Trust and Farmers Conservation Alliance joined district leaders for a groundbreaking ceremony. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, who spoke at the event, called the work “absolutely key for the future of Oregon and all of the western United States.”

With support from Farmers Conservation Alliance, Energy Trust, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the State of Oregon and others, Arnold Irrigation District, North Unit Irrigation District and Ochoco Irrigation District have begun the estimated $120 million process of converting aging, open ditch irrigation canals into modern piped, pressurized systems.

The districts’ current, roughly 100-year-old canals can lose as much as 70% of the water they carry to evaporation and leakage at a time when the region faces prolonged drought.

“The Deschutes Basin has faced years of drought and water scarcity that has impacted the lives of everyone and everything that calls the basin home,” said Julie O’Shea, executive director of Farmers Conservation Alliance. “For agricultural producers, this has meant shortened irrigation seasons, fewer crops going to market, and more expensive operating costs. For rivers, this has meant lower flow, poorer water quality, and stressed fish. Modernizing irrigation systems is the key to thriving farms, healthy rivers, and resilient communities. We’re excited to see this work in Central Oregon take off and know it will have a positive impact for generations to come.”

Over the next several years, the districts will replace nearly 50 miles of open canal with pressurized pipe. The new systems will be far more reliable for farmers and save roughly 64 cubic feet of water per second during irrigation season, which will lower costs by more than $800,000 per year.

The work will also protect and improve habitat for aquatic species, especially within McKay Creek.

Irrigation modernization requires significant partnerships due to the financial and technical challenges involved. In this case, the districts worked closely with Farmers Conservation Alliance and Energy Trust to incorporate energy efficiency into their plans.

In addition, Energy Trust’s early stage development assistance for irrigation modernization helps ensure irrigation districts can leverage critical federal funding down the road.

“These public infrastructure projects are incredibly complex and expensive, but we know they are well worth the investment of time and money it takes to get them off the ground,” said Dave Moldal, senior program manager with Energy Trust. “Energy Trust is glad to support the irrigation districts with the initial funding to plan these upgrades, which is really the key to unlocking necessary state and federal funding for piping and the energy benefits that modernization will yield.”

Other partners in this project include the Oregon Water Resources Department and the Deschutes Basin Board of Control.