Many Oregon farmers rely on outdated irrigation systems that cause water losses they can no longer afford — and irrigation districts are racing to bring the infrastructure up to date.
Phil Fine tried to grow sunflowers this year.
Alongside their second-generation farm in Madras, Fine’s family runs Five Sisters Flower Truck. Sunflowers seemed like a fun addition to the colorful bouquets spilling out of multiple Honda mini-trucks the company has at shopping centers around the Portland area.
But this summer was hot — hotter than any farmer working the Pacific Northwest soil has ever experienced.
Farmer Phil Fine next to an irrigation pond that stores water for his growing season. Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
Sunflowers have to be cut by hand just before they bloom. At the end of June, when a record-breaking heat wave blanketed the region in temperatures topping 110 degrees, Fine was able to harvest about 25% of the flowers.
As for the rest?
“We couldn’t get any water on them, and they just blew up,” he says.
His regular crops struggled, too. He shows me a field of dried-up alfalfa he had to stop watering in June, when the district’s water allotment was adjusted midseason.
Most farmers in the area, Fine included, were only able to plant about half their land this year, and were then forced to abandon some of those crops when the allotments were cut.
Phil Fine stands in a field that will soon be converted from flood irrigation to a more efficient pivot sprinkler system. Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
“There’s no way to candy-coat it,” he says. “This area was a disaster zone this year. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The intense heat exacerbated a problem that has been plaguing farmers in Oregon for years: they just don’t have enough water. The year 2021 was the driest in Oregon over the past 127 years; currently, 67.9% of the state is classified as D4, meaning “severe drought.”
Scientists agree that climate change is the catalyst to worsening extreme weather, including drought and heat waves. In November world leaders met in Glasgow to discuss the urgent need to drastically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and hopefully stave off worsening impacts of global warming. But those commitments won’t end droughts that are actively ravaging regions around the globe. Those conversations won’t deliver more water to Oregon farmers. Instead, solutions to water shortages will have to come from on the ground.
Or in the ground.
When you think of farmland, perhaps you envision a patchwork quilt of browns and greens, as seen from a plane flying overhead. When Fine looks out over his fields, he sees several seasons behind and ahead of him; he thinks about the importance of fall moisture, which was nonexistent last year. He considers the snowpack that will hopefully pile up this winter, and how much water he’ll be allotted come spring.
When Jed Jorgensen thinks about farmland, he sees a web of opportunity for improvements.
Jorgensen is the director of energy solutions at the Farmers Conservation Alliance, where he works primarily on something called irrigation modernization.
Oregon’s irrigation infrastructure is made up largely of open-air canals, ditches and laterals that were dug by hand or mule-drawn equipment over a century ago. They move water from sources (rivers, streams, reservoirs) to land where it is used to water crops and raise livestock. When water passes through those aging systems, about 50% is lost to evaporation and seepage into the ground — especially in Central Oregon, where the volcanic landscape is very porous.
Much water is lost to evaporation in flood irrigation systems. Here, the furrows are flooded with water pumped in from open troughs. Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
As drought and heat continue to worsen, every drop counts. That lost water is desperately needed — for farmers, but also for steelhead, bull trout, the endangered spotted frog and other local wildlife that depend on water being left where it is. Entire ecosystems are impacted when too much water has to be pulled from those sources. And entire communities suffer when farmers are forced to stop watering their crops because there’s just not enough to go around.
Paul Kasberger, a Central Oregon Irrigation District board member, was born in the house he still lives in, surrounded by the land he now farms just outside of Redmond. When he returned to the family farm after college, he knew that updating the irrigation system would be critical to the success of their business. Water comes in over rimrock, and by piping it, he was able to conserve water and pressurize what comes through, eliminating the need for electric-powered pumps. The energy savings paid for the system upgrade in about five years.
Farmer Paul Kasberger stands in an irrigation pipe that will be installed underground to provide water to the North Unit Irrigation District. Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
Kasberger was an early adopter of irrigation modernization. But farmers across the state have been seeing the benefits of piping those old systems for decades; not only do they retain the water once lost through seepage and evaporation, the pressurized water coming through pipes reduces or even eliminates the need for pumps, drastically reducing energy costs. And in certain cases, the addition of hydropower projects can turn that moving water into profitable, renewable energy for irrigation districts that can use those profits to continue improving their systems.
“The benefits are huge,” says Kasberger. “The hard part is funding.”
When Kasberger updated the irrigation system on his own land, it was only a few miles of pipe. But when entire water districts transition from canals to pipes, it’s a massive endeavor that might involve transitioning hundreds of miles of canals to pipes. Those projects first require complicated applications and permitting processes before they can move forward. Then there are a lot of up-front costs to get things moving.
But a key partnership between Farmers Conservation Alliance and Energy Trust of Oregon is easing some of those initial roadblocks to modernization.
Energy Trust of Oregon, a nonprofit that partners with utility companies to incentivize efficient energy use and generate renewable energy, saw an opportunity in irrigation modernization projects — in the form of energy savings for their customers.
“We recognized that a modernized irrigation infrastructure could create a lot of hydropower,” says Dave Moldal, senior program manager at Energy Trust.
Even before hydropower projects are implemented, the energy savings can be huge. Simply by piping water that travels downhill from large pipes (up to 14 feet in diameter) to small ones (just inches), the pressurized system greatly reduces the cost of operating a farm or ranch.
Pipes deliver pressurized water to the pivot irrigation system on Paul Kasberger’s farm. Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
Energy Trust has been working with irrigation districts to support these projects for a little over a decade now. Thus far, they’ve committed about $12 million in funding to support the up-front planning required of districts that are working to modernize. The benefits identified in those early stages have, in turn, leveraged over $170 million in federal and state funds for construction.
The benefits for conservation are critical as well. The Deschutes River Basin Habitat Conservation Plan, finalized in December 2020, was designed to increase the flow in the Deschutes River for the Oregon spotted frog, steelhead trout and other threatened species, requiring water be diverted from water users in eight irrigation districts, including North Unit Irrigation District (where Fine farms) and Central Oregon Irrigation District (where Kasberger farms). The requirements are controversial as water shortages plague the region — many farmers feeling as though the combination of drought and water restrictions in the HCP are incompatible.
But piping — among other irrigation upgrades, like switching from wheel lines to pivots and drip irrigation systems — could significantly ease the burden of the conservation plan as more water is conserved for all users.
The benefits are clear for everyone: When canals are piped, farmers save money on energy costs and receive more water; more water is left in natural resources; and water districts can build profitable renewable energy sources.
Jorgensen says irrigation modernization “may be the biggest water opportunity in the western United States.”
Whychus Creek, a tributary of the Deschutes River, begins on the east slope of the Cascade Range in Three Sisters Wilderness. Its name, from the Sahaptin language spoken by people indigenous to the area, means “the place we cross the water.”
Prior to the arrival of white settlers, the Whychus ran wild, cascading over the ancient remnants of volcanoes and crashing through narrow canyons. It provided a healthy stock of fish to local tribes. Then came the settlement of the western states and the Carey Act, which awarded land to settlers if they lived on and cultivated it. Cultivation required water, and soon irrigation systems were diverting water from sources including Whychus Creek. By 1912 Whychus ran dry most summer months, and the problem continued to worsen for decades.
Conservation efforts kicked off in the late 1990s, through partnerships between Portland General Electric, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The efforts included redirecting the stream through Camp Polk Meadow to provide a riparian environment of lush vegetation and planting trees along the banks to create safe spawning pools for fish.
In 1998 irrigation modernization became a part of that effort. Today the transition from canals to pipes is mostly complete in the Three Sisters Irrigation District — and for the first time since the 1800s, Whychus Creek runs year-round.
Energy Trust of Oregon provided a $1 million cash incentive and $300,000 in project-development assistance for the modernization of Three Sisters.
Farmers Irrigation District has been another success story. They started modernizing about 30 years ago, says Moldal, and today they’re saving about 60% more water, now that it’s running through pipes.
The Farmers and Three Sisters irrigation districts, along with a few other early trailblazers, have become models for the Farmers Conservation Alliance and Energy Trust of Oregon to aspire toward in their irrigation modernization program.
The benefits are widespread, but they will take time to realize — and they’re felt in varying degrees, depending on a complicated tangle of location, water rights and potential for renewable energy. Unfortunately, not every district is well suited for energy savings, of the sort that Energy Trust of Oregon would prioritize.
“I’m on the wrong end of the project,” says Fine when I ask if any of his canals have been piped. Because NUID has the most junior water rights, they’ve faced shortages more frequently than neighboring districts, forcing them to optimize with other types of efficiency upgrades, like drip irrigation. Piping in NUID hasn’t been prioritized because there just isn’t as much to gain. There aren’t as many miles of canals to be upgraded, and they’ve already optimized their system — because they really didn’t have a choice. They’ve been facing water shortages for years. But Jorgensen says they do have plans to start piping NUID in 2023, and the work being done in neighboring districts helps them, too.
“Water districts really are trying to be extremely creative in working together to save water across districts,” says Jorgensen.
Still, while certain irrigation districts are enjoying increased flow and energy savings, Fine worries about neighboring farms in North Unit being unable to survive continued drought.
“These are big projects,” says Fine, of what’s ultimately needed across the state. “It’s gonna take some big federal money to get it done.”
Despite the devastating water shortage across the region, Fine says he feels lucky. His business is diversified. He says much of that is thanks to his wife, who runs the flower trucks with her sisters. His kids help out, too. But the reality facing many of his neighbors is grim.
The irrigation modernization program helps with early-stage capital and significant assistance on permitting and grant applications for these projects. But that assistance only goes so far. Irrigation districts still have to come up with the money for pipes — a cost that’s skyrocketed recently.
But with successful projects demonstrating the value of modernization, the benefits are being recognized at the state and federal level, which will hopefully mean more funding.
Ten-foot pipes staged for installation for the Central Oregon Irrigation District. Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
The USDA recently awarded $2.6 million to the Deschutes River Conservancy to implement water-conservation projects within Central Oregon Irrigation District. That money won’t go to the largest sections of COID piping, but it will complement those upgrades by piping smaller laterals and implementing on-farm efficiencies, like pivots and drip irrigation systems.
The Biden Administration’s recently passed infrastructure bill could also mean more money for irrigation modernization. The plan includes $5 billion for helping farmers, ranchers and communities respond to drought. How those funds will be allocated is still very much up in the air. When it comes to water, there are many parties with different ideas about how and where to conserve water and how that water will be used.
But the need to upgrade these systems — to replace hundreds of miles of leaky, open-air canals with efficient pipes that deliver all of the water that flows through them — is something everyone can agree on.
Neighboring western states are now looking to Oregon for guidance.
“There’s been a tremendous interest in figuring out solutions to help modernize these systems across the West,” says Jorgensen. “Oregon really had a head-start for a few reasons, most of which were focused on Energy Trust and their interest in funding this concept.”
Farmers Conservation Alliance is now working with two irrigation districts in Montana, one in Nevada, and one in California, helping them strategize on a path to modernization.
As projects move along and more pipe is laid in the ground this winter, farmers and their communities will be looking to the sky for more rain — and to the mountains as snowpack hopefully piles up. Because even with the most efficient systems, we still need water flowing through them.
“I wish we were further along,” says Jorgensen. Through his work at Farmers Conservation Alliance, he sees farmers who are reaching the end of their ability to survive water shortages. As ETO and FCA continue assisting with the funds and permitting, it’s becoming a race against the clock. “We see the potential to make an enormous impact. How fast we can go is really the question.”
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EDITOR'S NOTE: A photo caption in this story has been updated to accurately reflect the location of the pictured irrigation pipe.