Who should pay for irrigation canal piping?

Central Oregon Irrigation Districts have spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars piping their canals.  They plan to request hundreds of millions more [1].  A current example is Tumalo Irrigation District’s application for funding [2] their next piping phase which will cover 68.8 miles, take 11 years to implement, and is expected to cost $42,689,000, all paid by taxpayers [3].   You can comment on TID’s plan until May 22 by visiting www.oregonwatershedplans.org.

Clearly, there are benefits to piping, including stopping the loss of water due to seepage and delivering pressurized water to landowners, but there are issues as well.  Foremost in my mind is taxpayers bearing the significant cost of system upgrades which are decades overdue.  Why are lower cost and complementary solutions to water savings not simultaneously being pursued?  I believe the irrigation districts are focused on system upgrades that are easiest for them to implement and we taxpayers are not getting a fair deal in return [4].

Some amount of piping of irrigation canals is certainly a solution to restoring the upper and middle Deschutes River.  It is important to understand, however, that the Basin Study Work Group [5] has identified tools that offer significant, quick to implement, and low cost opportunities for water savings which could also help restore flows into the Deschutes River. [6]  These tools are complementary to piping and can be independent from it.

A simple example would be to charge for water based on actual use.  Irrigators currently pay based on the number of acres under irrigation, not on how much water is applied per acre.  Charging for actual use would lead to more efficient application of water.  There is also a long history of individual Central Oregon irrigators willingly returning water to the river.  BSWG discovered that many more would do this if allowed but district policies limit or outright forbid it. [7]

TID’s proposal is lower cost than projected by other irrigation districts but it is still expensive.  They believe they will be able to return 48 cubic feet a second [8] or 15,116 acre/feet [9] to the river at a total cost of $42,689,000.  That’s $890,000/cfs or $2,824/af.  Some of the alternative approaches studied by BWSG would cost dramatically less, perhaps only a few hundred dollars an acre foot. [10]

TID serves 667 patrons [11] who average less than 5 irrigated acres [12] and produce little food for commercial distribution.  Similar to most Deschutes County irrigators, TID is primarily hobby farmers who enjoy the lifestyle.  Clearly, this is their right and is to be respected, but should we taxpayers subsidize their hobby?  Shouldn’t the irrigators bear at least some of the financial burden?

TID estimates that piping their system will save their patrons $385,000/year in pumping costs. [13]  At a minimum shouldn’t those savings be used to pay part of the bill?  Those savings could cover interest on a significant loan.

TID is representative of irrigation districts in Deschutes County who collectively withdraw most of the water in the Deschutes.  Oregon law states that the public owns rivers but that rights to the water can be granted if it will be used “beneficially”.  100 years ago that made sense.  Deschutes County was a remote, sparsely inhabited region with aspirations of growing an agrarian economy and attracting settlers.  Today, agriculture in total is well under 2% of Deschutes County’s GDP and the average farm loses over $11,000 a year. [14]  (Ag plays a larger role in Jefferson and Crook counties.)

Deschutes County has been blessed with a booming economy but essentially none of that growth has come from agriculture.  We have a lifestyle/recreation based economy and the Deschutes River is its lifeblood [15].  The most beneficial use of the public’s water today would be to return it to the river.

TID is to be commended for working on solutions to restoring river flows while continuing water deliveries.  Irrigators have a legal right to water and their chosen lifestyles.  They should be good stewards of the public’s water, however, by using it efficiently and returning conserved water to the river.  They should also bear a portion of the financial burden.  Irrigators do not pay the public for any of the water they divert out of our rivers but they get its benefit while asking taxpayers to pay for the modernization of their systems.  In so many ways, this is simply wrong.

[1] Piping Central Oregon Irrigation District alone will cost $700M, not including 250 miles of privately owned lateral canals.  COID On-Farm Study Final 051617

[2] http://www.oregonwatershedplans.org/

[3] Tumalo Draft Watershed Plan-EA_4.16.2018 pages ii, 12 TID Modernization Plan

[4] https://coinformedangler.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/upper-deschutes-backgrounder.pdf, page 4

[5] www.deschutesriver.org

[6] SCS Task 7 Technical Memorandum_Final_2017-07-28

[7] SCS Task 7 Technical Memorandum_Final_2017-07-28

[8] Tumalo Draft Watershed Plan-EA_4.16.2018 page xxvii TID Modernization Plan

[9] Tumalo Draft Watershed Plan-EA_4.16.2018 page 1 TID Modernization Plan

[10] CS Task 7 Technical Memorandum_Final_2017-07-28 page vi

[11] Tumalo Draft Watershed Plan-EA_4.16.2018 page xxvii  TID Modernization Plan

[12] Tumalo Draft Watershed Plan-EA_4.16.2018 page 41  TID Modernization Plan

[13] From the presentation by TID at the 5/8/18 public comment meeting.

[14] https://coinformedangler.org/2018/04/29/agricutures-contribution-to-deschutes-countys-economy/

[15] https://coinformedangler.org/2018/04/29/agricutures-contribution-to-deschutes-countys-economy/