One of the primary disagreements between the irrigators and conservation groups is the relative importance between canal piping and improving efficiency in the use of water. For a variety of reasons, the irrigators are focused on piping their main canals. The Basin Study Work Group, however, showed that water could be more cheaply and quickly saved via other techniques including the use of modern irrigation methods and simple water conservation. I saw a great example of this while on a hike along the Deschutes yesterday.
A friend told me about seeing two irrigation returns into the Middle Deschutes River upstream of Tetherow Crossing, so Karen and I went to take a look. As you can see in the photos, even in a year of extreme drought, there are what appear to be two small creeks flowing into the Deschutes. In fact, these are not creeks at all but excess irrigation water flowing back into the river.
This is extremely problematic. Water that has traveled through irrigation canals / ditches is warmer than the river and has most likely been contaminated with agricultural byproducts. So, not only has more water been withdrawn from the Deschutes than needed, but returns degrade the water quality.
I am not an expert at estimating flow in creeks, but I looked at these returns for a while, considered their width, depth, and speed, and believe they are somewhere between 0.5 CFS and 1.0 CFS, combined. (1 CFS is roughly 7.8 gallons.) This may not seem like much, but the irrigators are spending millions of taxpayer dollars on piping projects that sometimes save as little as 1.8 CFS and sending out press releases about it. It would be a heck of a lot cheaper and quicker to simply not divert unneeded water from the river.
Here’s a great aerial view of what is going on.
The two red arrows point to the irrigation returns from small properties at the end of a lateral canal. The broad, green line of vegetation shows that these returns are a constant feature. I can tell you that the well established foliage along these returns is far different than what is otherwise present in this area.
It is also important to know that this is not an isolated example. Main irrigation canals are diverted into smaller “lateral” canals which are then diverted onto the land. There are many examples of unused water at the end of these laterals flowing back into the Deschutes River, the Crooked River, or simply flowing out onto the ground. If you look for it, you can see standing water from irrigation releases in many places as you travel around Central Oregon, even in this summer of extreme drought.