Tumalo Creek outside Bend, Oregon.

Tumalo Creek outside Bend, Oregon.

Matt Kern/Flickr

Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley took credit this week for securing nearly $30 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pay for piping in the Tumalo Irrigation District system. The pipes will replace about 70 miles of inefficient open-air canals.

“In some places, we can lose up to 50 percent of the water we put in the canal,” said Tumalo watermaster Chris Schull.

That’s due to evaporation, and because the geology of Central Oregon lends itself to leakage and seepage, Schull said. The district has been slowly piping its main line over the years, and the funding announced this week will help it finish the job. The USDA payments will be spread over 11 years, with about $13 million more coming from local water user groups.

So far, about $75 million in federal funding has been set aside to help conserve water diverted from the Deschutes River basin, where reservoirs are at historic lows. The Tumalo Irrigation District is the first water user group in the basin to get federal funding in response to a legal settlement between irrigators and environmental groups two years ago. The settlement requires leaving more water in the river to save the endangered Oregon spotted frog.

“This important project will not only improve irrigation conditions for Central Oregon farmers, it will also help ensure habitats are protected and water is conserved,” Merkley said in a press release.