The party under a big white tent at the edge of a reservoir fed by the Deschutes River would have been an unlikely celebration just a few years ago, but this week environmental advocates and farmers came together to celebrate $50 million in federal funding for modernizing irrigation in Central Oregon.

A crowd of about 90 people gathered near Sisters to celebrate funding for irrigation modernization and hear Sen. Jeff Merkley speak. 

A crowd of about 90 people gathered near Sisters to celebrate funding for irrigation modernization and hear Sen. Jeff Merkley speak. 

Emily Cureton / OPB

Outside the tent, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., cut the ribbon on a 7-foot wide pipe that represents middle ground in a once-litigious conflict — just one ceremonial chunk from about 69 miles of pipe replacing the open-air canals serving farms in the Tumalo Irrigation District. Merkley has championed funding that also supports Three Sisters Irrigation District, which has piped most of its canals, and piloted a micro-hydro system of turbines to turn diverted water into electricity.

“This is such a win-win,” Merkley said. “It delivers energy with in-pipe hydro projects, it delivers water more efficiently and it proceeds to be possible to put more water back in the stream for the health of the river.”

The praise-filled tent outside Sisters was a far cry from just three years ago, when irrigators settled a lawsuit with environmental groups by agreeing to leave more water in the river to save the endangered Oregon spotted frog.

Merkley was joined by Natural Resource Conservation Service director Matt Lohr, who said: “This is a tremendous display of what true collaboration is.”

Merkley worked with a Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., to tap into federal aid specifically for farmers challenged by an endangered species listings like the spotted frog.

“We now have $30 million that’s going into this project, another $20 million that’s available for other Central Oregon irrigation projects and another $25 million on the way. We’re going to keep this stream of resources as long as we can,” Merkley said.

An example of a turbine from the Watson Micro Hydro Demonstration Project outside Sisters. 

An example of a turbine from the Watson Micro Hydro Demonstration Project outside Sisters. 

Emily Cureton / OPB

About 60 percent was allocated to Tumalo Irrigation District, which like many canal operators running through the porous, volcanic geology of Central Oregon, was losing up to 50 percent of diverted water to evaporation and seepage, according to watermaster Chris Schull.

Tumalo and Three Sisters are among smaller districts drawing on the Deschutes, and both are well on their way to fully replacing canals with pipes.

“We are basically delivering 25 percent more water on the farm,” said Marc Thalaker, manager of the Three Sisters District.

Piping the much larger Central Oregon Irrigation District could cost between $500 million and $600 million, according to that district’s figures.

Over the years, the pipes have been criticized by neighbors who like living next to a waterway, and have drawn ire from neighborhood groups that lobbied to get canals listed on the national registry of historic places. But that hasn’t impeded piping as a high priority policy and conservation solution, because they conserve so much water while creating a pressurized system that could be turned into electricity.

“We might be able to generate electricity for our farm and even some that will go back to the grid,” said Sisters area rancher Thayne Dutson, who also serves on the Three Sisters Irrigation District’s board.

Thayne Dutson raises cattle on a ranch near Sisters. 

Thayne Dutson raises cattle on a ranch near Sisters. 

Emily Cureton / OPB

At the celebration, he eyed a newly poured concrete box containing several different types of turbines – prototypes for how an on-farm renewable energy system might work. Whether he would build something like this on his 235-acre ranch, “depends on how the tests work out on the projects, and if I can get the cost back out of it,” he said.

The story of water diversions moving through 100-year-old, inefficient infrastructure is familiar across the West, said Julie O’Shea, executive director for the Farmers Conservation Alliance.

“As we come into these scenarios of climate change, of community development, water quality, you name the topic … modernizing these irrigation systems is one of the greatest opportunities of our generation,” she said.

In 2015, the Farmers Conservation Alliance partnered with the Energy Trust of Oregon to support updates.

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With politically charged problems like climate change, endangered species and drought in the background, Energy Trust’s Jed Jorgensen laid out the more practical headaches of the old canals: they leak, dams prevent fish passage, people dump trash in canals, or they get clogged with natural debris during storms. There’s accidental drownings, leaky septic systems contaminating the water bound for edible crops, and the expense of electricity required to pump the water when it isn’t pressurized by a pipe.

“Irrigation modernization is really just the radical idea of delivering water in a pipe, which we’ve been doing for a while as society,” Jorgensen joked. He acknowledged that these projects are happening on the ancestral lands of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

“They’ve been a key partner in these efforts and we wouldn’t be here without their support,” Jorgensen said.

A view of the Three Sisters Irrigation District reservoir in Central Oregon on March 19, 2019. 

A view of the Three Sisters Irrigation District reservoir in Central Oregon on March 19, 2019. 

Emily Cureton / OPB

Many water users on the Lower Deschutes weren’t at the ceremony because they live far away from where the pipes will be placed, but they stand to benefit. The tribes are consolidated on a reservation miles downstream, but should experience less warm water coming down the river to disrupt fisheries. And the town of Maupin, a popular boating destination, should see better water flows for its tourism industry. 

“The Deschutes River is our economy. Most of our businesses are dependent on [it] to survive,” said Maupin Mayor Lynn Ewing by phone. “We don’t have irrigation down here that comes out of the river. We get what’s left.” 

Ewing said he believes the Deschutes has been over-allocated for as long as the canals have existed, but that piping is still net gain. “It conserves water … which is always good for the fish. We applaud that effort.”