“Give me a one-handed economist. All my economists say ‘on one hand…’, then ‘but on the other…'” – Harry Truman

Save Arnold Canal

I was recently contacted by a few people from a group calling themselves Save Arnold Canal. I encourage you to look at their website, especially the two videos. They have done an excellent job describing their opposition to piping the Arnold Irrigation District (AID) main canal. Keep reading for my thoughts on this thorny issue.

On one hand, this group could be dismissed as NIMBY homeowners who want to protect their personal property. I fully understand the desire to protect the value of your property, but if they did reasonable due diligence when buying they knew that AID has a huge right of way and can perform maintenance and construction as deemed necessary. When I purchased in Tumalo I purposefully stayed away from property that had canals adjacent or through it, even if the agent touted the “seasonal stream” and “riparian” areas it created.

Then there’s the common good argument. The total number of property owners potentially negatively impacted by AID piping is trivially small compared to the number of people in Central Oregon who will benefit from increased flows in the Upper Deschutes River (above Bend). Protecting private, unnatural riparian areas for the benefit of a few should not be a cost borne by fish and wildlife who call the river and surrounding areas home. In the big picture, habitat created by unnatural seasonal flows in a leaky canal is simply too unimportant when compared to restoring natural habitat in and along the river. Show me some endangered species living in the AID main canal and I’ll change my position.

Also, they make some spurious claims. A 300 year old tree started growing almost 200 years before the canal was dug, so it is hard to for me to understand the statement that it will die if denied water from a leaky seasonal canal. They also show misleading photos of pipes being installed by another irrigation district. Both photos are of dramatically larger pipes than would be installed by AID. In one photo you can see that trees near the new pipe remain standing. I have personally examined the installation of the biggest main canal pipes from other districts and they did not cut down everything within 50 feet on both sides.

On the other hand, the group does make some excellent points. AID’s plan to build a significant earthen berm and road along the Wild & Scenic section of the Upper Deschutes just above Bend seems like a non-starter to me. A good attorney should be able to tie this up in litigation for a long time. I can’t image what AID is thinking. It is also true that there are faster, cheaper solutions to saving water. The Basin Study Work Group spent years examining this issue and detailing alternate approaches. Also, as the group accurately points out, AID’s claims that piping is required for public safety is not supported by facts. Similarly, evaporation losses from open canals are trivial. (Note that safety and evaporation claims have been made by other irrigation districts to partly justify their piping plans.)

To be clear, I am a proponent of piping. Our planet is heating, our climate is drying, our population is increasing, we need to save as much water as we can, and piping is a critical part of the solution. That being said, we don’t drop nuclear bombs to settle every conflict. Piping is one tool out of many that can be used. Piping the biggest, leakiest canal sections first makes sense. Piping the ends of canals and laterals to eliminate end spills makes sense. Modernizing on-farm delivery systems makes sense.

It’s a tough, complicated issue and irrigation districts have no subtlety in their approach. They have a pot of federal taxpayer money available to pipe and they are going to use it to perform one method of modernizing their systems, modernization that I believe they should have been doing for decades at their own expense. While I do not agree with everything stated on, and wish they had been more careful with some of their claims, they make some excellent points and hope they can positively influence AID’s current plans.

PS: there is one other issue I should touch on, the potential impact of piping on private domestic wells. I own one of these wells. I live about a mile from another district’s main canal that has yet to be piped. It is likely that my well will have to be deepened once that canal is piped. This is an expense I will willingly bear, however, if it means increased flows in the Deschutes River. We are in a water crisis, one that will likely get worse, and we all need to shoulder the burden. We can make choices. Fish and wildlife that call the river corridor home cannot.