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Oregon's water infrastructure hasn't been upgraded for 100 years. Some think it's time to fix that.

A canal in Alfalfa, near Bend Caleb Diehl A canal in Alfalfa, near Bend

Part one of a new series of stories that investigates how the business community is creating solutions to climate change.  


Every summer day in rural Oregon, farmers order up water from an army of “ditch riders,” the bartenders of irrigation. They run between canals, opening and shutting valves to divert the flow to their customers. Somewhere between a quarter to 60% of that precious water evaporates or seeps into the ground before it reaches farms. This isn’t a scene from Oregon circa 1900. It’s Oregon in 2018.

Like other western states, Oregon thirsts for some $7.6 billion of upgrades to its antiquated canals, dams and wastewater treatment plants. In Central Oregon alone, 1,600 miles of canals need upgrading at an estimated cost of around $2 billion. To put that in perspective, the landmark transportation package legislators passed in 2017 funded $5.3 billion of improvements.

Healthcare, affordable housing and transportation top the agenda at planning meetings. Water, not so much.

“The last time Oregon upgraded its water infrastructure was when Phil Knight was making shoes in a waffle iron,” Bobby Cochran, executive director of Willamette Partnership, told policymakers and business executives last week at an annual economic summit in Portland.

Climate change compounds the problem. A drought has plagued parts of Central Oregon for years. By 2080, Cochran says, more than half of the precipitation that hits Mount Hood will arrive as rain, not snow. It will run away before farmers and cities can use it.

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“Almost any day you open a paper it’s talking about how reservoirs are way way down,” says Jed Jorgensen, an energy project manager at Energy Trust of Oregon. “All the research is pointing to a change in how we see rain and snow accumulating in the state.”

Low snowpack and persistent drought have taken their toll in the Deschutes Basin. The drought spanned five of the past six years and exhausted the Wickiup Reservoir, southwest of Bend, for the first time in decades. Mike Britton, manager of the basin’s North Unit Irrigation District says, “this last year was far more extreme than what I’ve seen in the past.”

Britton doesn’t hold climate change responsible, but he says, “Talk to me in five years and if it’s still like this I might change my story.”


“The last time Oregon upgraded its water infrastructure was when Phil Knight was making shoes in a waffle iron,”
—Bobby Cochran, executive director of Willamette Partnership


Food production consumes around 80% of the water used in the Western United states. As cities expand and groundwater levels shrink, urban and rural areas could clash over water rights. Ground zero is the Umatilla Irrigation District, home to four of the state’s seven critical groundwater areas. Data centers and population growth are encroaching on farmers’ needs.

“As the cities grow in our region they’re sucking the same groundwater as the ag[riculture] producers need,” says J.R. Cook, founder of the Northeast Oregon Water Association in Pendleton. “They’re starting to cut their own throats.”

In the Willamette Valley, heart of Oregon’s agricultural production and wine country, farmers are turning to different crops as water runs short. Most of the region’s reserves are stored in Detroit Lake for irrigation and a federal flood control project. But now cities and industry want in, prompting a conversation about reallocation.

“We are literally trying to stabilize our economy by starting at the first level, the basic necessity of water,” says Danielle Gonzalez, a management analyst for Marion County.   

Currently, Salem gets first dibs, ahead of smaller rural communities upstream along the Santiam River. “It’s a potential for conflict if we don’t get that right,” says Gonzalez.

The Marion County board of commissioners is working with water experts, economists and federal agencies on reallocation options. In February, ECONorthwest will release the final report on its findings.

IMG 2320A canal in Alfalfa, near Bend. 

There’s a simple, if costly, solution to some of rural Oregon’s water woes: put canal water in big pipes under pressure. Oregon is leading the charge among western states with its statewide Irrigation Modernization Project, launched in 2015 by Energy Trust of Oregon and Farmers’ Conservation Alliance. Energy Trust has funded about $200,000 for each of 20 districts across the state to begin planning.

Pipes solve the waste from runoff, seepage and evaporation. Districts that have installed pipes have found themselves with a surplus of water that can power micro-hydro systems or be returned to sensitive ecosystems.

Three Sisters Irrigation District saved 9 million kilowatt-hours of power after piping almost all of its 63 miles. Farmers Irrigation District in Hood River saved money on energy and tackled two climate issues at once—creating water sources that firefighters used during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. Farmers get a more efficient supply of water for their crops, especially important given the recent droughts.

“You’re saving energy,” Jorgensen says, “but you’re also saving that farmer a lot of money.”

Federal money and state matching funds will prove essential for pushing the costly projects through. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has financed $30 million of improvements in the Tumalo Irrigation District near Bend. Britton’s district in the Deschutes Basin won $50 million in federal funding for pipes.

A plan from the modernization project is well on its way to solving some of the district’s water issues. But Britton says he’s still searching “desperately” for partners to match the funds for the vast project. “That’s really what this district needs,” he says, “help putting pipe in the ground.”

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To date, the modernization project has updated around 579 miles of canals across the state with pipes of up to 11 feet wide, making it one of the largest piping projects in the West. Jorgensen says other cities and states are looking for ways to replicate the success so far.

“These projects have tremendous potential to be a game changer to help the environment adapt to a changing climate,” Jorgensen says. “The goal is how can we accelerate this work and scale it across Oregon”

The clock is ticking. Much of the state’s water infrastructure remains unprepared for the increased flooding and drought that climate scientists have predicted. As the conversations among state leaders take on a more urgent tone, more large-scale projects could take shape.

“We’re right at the cusp of trying to figure all this out,” Gonzalez says. “We’ve been so used to having all the water that we want. I don’t know if we’ve thought about it at this level.”

Next week in the series, we’ll dive deeper into water management, exploring projects that cut costs through designing with natural systems. 


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Caleb Diehl

Caleb Diehl is a reporter at Oregon Business

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