Ochoco Irrigation District Canal Piping Post – Another Boondoggle?

Ochoco Irrigation District is the latest in Central Oregon to apply for federal funding to upgrade their water distribution system.  Details of the proposal as well as information on how to submit comments by September 30th are online.  The “Draft Watershed Plan – Environmental Assessment” (Draft-EA) is 155 pages long but easy to read.  I encourage you to go through the materials yourself and come to your own conclusions, but here are my comments.  Like the previous proposals from other local irrigators, it’s a mixed bag.  The common belief is that canal piping is good, and in theory I agree, but the devil is always in the details.

OID serves patrons around Prineville, delivering water stored in Prineville and Ochoco Reservoirs and taken from streams like McKay Creek[i].  About 20% of the water diverted into the existing canal system is lost to ground seepage, evaporation, and end spills[ii].  OID proposes to pipe part of their system and upgrade pumps used for water delivery which will return 4.8 cubic feet per second (CFS) to the Crooked River[iii].  Clearly, adding water to the Crooked River is a desirable goal. 

One cubic foot of water is 7.48 gallons, so 4.8 CFS is 35.90 gallons.  Imagine standing next to the Crooked River below Bowman Dam and laying seven five-gallon buckets next to each other on the bottom of the river.  That’s the amount of water that will be conserved.   In contrast, according to the Draft-EA, OID takes “up to” 190 CFS out of the Crooked River[iv].  4.8 CFS is a modest amount of water. 

Not only is the conserved amount low, it is expensive.  The projected cost for the system improvements is $30,788,000[v].  $13,979,000 of that is for a new pipeline to serve farms along the middle stretch of McKay Creek, the remaining $16,809,000 is for projects that will deliver the 4.8 CFS, which comes out to $468,217 a gallon.[vi]  Further, only 39[vii] farms will benefit from the project (out of 898 in OID) at a cost of $431,000 per farm.

Not only is the saved water expensive, we taxpayers will shoulder the cost.  $23,061,000 will come from Federal funds while $7,727,000 will come from state and other non-Federal sources[viii].  OID will only contribute $600,000 and that will come from a long term, no interest loan[ix].  Given the nature of inflation and the time value of money, the $600,00 is essentially free.  For more perspective, state water law says that all water is owned by the public, but irrigators can take it at no cost as long as they beneficially use it without waste.  We, the public, get no compensation for the water, and we are now going to pay for infrastructure upgrades, so that private interests can continue to make money and provide limited environmental benefit in exchange.  That makes little sense to me.

Worse, it is not clear if the 4.8 CFS of conserved water will even stay in the riverAs I discussed in this post, there are over 60 irrigation diversions in the Crooked River.  The 2014 Crooked River Act was written with the intent of managing a portion of the water stored in Prineville Reservoir for the maximum biological benefit of fish and wildlife by keeping a minimum amount of water in the Crooked River all the way to Lake Billy Chinook.  Thus far, that has not occurred.  Water released for fish and wildlife remains subject to downstream irrigation withdrawals.    While the intent of the Draft-EA is to keep the conserved water instream, it is only a goal and there are no guarantees this will be accomplished.

The same problem plagues the proposal for increasing flows in McKay Creek.  Historically, McKay Creek was a primary spawning area for salmon and steelhead.  The upper part of the creek, past river mile 12, is above farmland and is in reasonable shape.  The lower part of the creek, up to mile 6, has year-round flows. 

The middle part of McKay Creek, river miles 6 to 12, frequently goes dry in the summer due to natural fluctuations and the impact of 15 direct irrigation withdrawals that can total up to 11.2 CFS[x].  The piping proposal will deliver OID water from Prineville Reservoir to farmers along McKay Creek, potentially dramatically reducing withdrawals from the middle reach.  In certain conditions and times of the year, water savings of up to 11.2 CFS could be achieved.  Of course, this is expensive water as well.  Establishing flows in the middle part of McKay Creek is positive, but it is not clear how far those benefits will extend.  Once the water reaches the Crooked River there are numerous irrigation diversions that could take it.

A related issue is the soon to be released Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan.  The HCP is a proposal by the City of Prineville and local irrigation districts on how to manage flows in local rivers for their benefit while not excessively killing endangered species like salmon and steelhead.  The HCP includes an agreement to maintain minimum flows of 50 CFS in the Crooked River in certain conditions at certain times of the year.  This quickly gets complicated, but the bottom line is that the 50 CFS has been agreed to without the proposed piping in place.  Will it now be increased to 54.8 CFS?  If not, there’s no benefit to the Crooked River from the piping proposal at all.

Those are the issues that I would classify as “reasonable” objections to the Draft-EA.  In short, why should we provide a taxpayer bailout of private interests for limited environmental benefit?  Either we taxpayers should get far more benefit, or we should shoulder far less of the cost.  Beyond this, I have objections that some would classify as “unreasonable”.

While farmers will certainly object to this characterization, according to the US Department of Agriculture, most farmland in Crook Country is of low economic value.  According to the Draft-EA, “irrigators who would be served by the project primarily grow alfalfa hay and grass hay”.  There is nothing wrong with growing grass and hay, but it is not a strong economic driver.  In fact, the Draft-EA states that there are only 15 agricultural jobs in the project area representing a total of $500,000 of annual income.  After tens of millions of dollars in investment that would increase to $700,000 of income.[xi]

Clearly, everyone has a right to make a living in a manner of their own choosing, but since we taxpayers are providing the subsidies, don’t we have a voice in the matter?  Wouldn’t it be cheaper for us and more environmentally beneficial to simply buy the least productive lands and return their water rights to the river?  Was that analysis done? Even if we subsequently piped some canals, wouldn’t retiring some farmland make it cheaper?

This line of thought makes even more sense if we acknowledge that our planet is rapidly heating.  Water shortages are here now and will get worse.  Low-value agriculture in the high desert will come under increasing scrutiny and economic pressure.  Is this an area where we should invest taxpayer dollars that yield a low return on investment?  Buying the land and investing in habitat restoration is not a crazy idea at all.  Given the climate crisis, we are going to have to think outside the box sooner than anyone wants to acknowledge.

Footnotes refer to PDF page numbers in the Draft-EA.

[i] Page 30.

[ii] Page 39.

[iii] Page 24.

[iv] Page 57.

[v] Page 2.

[vi] Page 133, KcKay Creek is Project Group 1.  Also see page 24.

[vii] Page 24.

[viii] Page 2.

[ix] Public comment made by OID during scoping meeting and personal communication with the Deschutes River Conservancy.

[x] Page 61.

[xi] Pages 66 & 67.