Upper Phillips Creek is one of six diversions in the Little Applegate Basin that will have measuring devices so irrigators can self-regulate how much water they divert on a regular basis. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

Going with the flow

RUCH — Upper Phillips Ditch is the lifeblood to Warren Merz's 40-acre ranch, delivering stock water from the Little Applegate River to his cattle in a fashion that's virtually changed since the 1850s.

Little Applegate water is diverted through a head gate from the river, and it snakes down the ditch toward Merz's cattle and the 11 other irrigators on the ditch. But whether that ditch carries more or less water than the dozen irrigators are collectively entitled to is anybody's guess.

"I don't know," Merz says. "I just want to make sure I have enough water for my animals. I don't want to see my girls suffer."

Merz's cattle or the wild salmon that call Little Applegate their home both face less chance of unneeded suffering this irrigation season under a new pilot program that ensures key water diversions such as Upper Phillips Ditch don't siphon more, or less, water than landowners' rights call for.

The ditch is one of six diversions in the Little Applegate Basin now getting new measuring devices installed in them so irrigators can self-regulate how much water they divert on a regular basis without Jackson County's watermaster having to do it.

The simple devices will ensure the landowners don't accidentally overstep their water rights, thereby leaving more water for other irrigators as well as in-stream needs.

It will help landowners with younger water rights stay wet longer, and the measurements will go a long way toward helping keep minimum in-stream flows for spawning and rearing salmon throughout the irrigation season.

"The whole picture is what we're trying to look at more," says Janelle Dunlevy, coordinator of the Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council, which is working on the diversion projects. "This is something beneficial to the landowner and the watershed."

They were built with the help of roughly $9,000 in grant money through the Oregon Water Resources Department and the watershed council, as well as in-kind work by landowners.

Over the past 13 years, state water managers have identified about 2,200 "significant" diversions that transfer a significant amount of that stream's water in 293 high-priority watersheds such as the Little Applegate. However, only about one-fourth of them have water rights that specifically required them to have measuring devices, according to a state water resources report.

The Little Applegate is the testing ground in southwest Oregon for this program that helps landowners get those significant diversions fitted with measuring devices so flows can be checked regularly.

They are basic, non-mechanized devices that measure the depth of flow in the creek and show it in terms of cubic feet per second of water.

Oregon water law operates under a "first in time, first in right" policy that determines who gets a stream's irrigation water during low-flow periods.

According to the law, properties with older, "senior" water rights get their legal allotment before younger, "junior" water rights get a drop. Even if the junior water-rights are upstream of the senior ones, those landowners at times have to watch streams flow past their parched fields to feed the older ranches.

In low years, watermasters begin regulating water either to ensure minimum in-stream flows are met or based on complaints.

Little Applegate has an in-stream water right of 10 cfs, so irrigators will be monitored to ensure that minimum flow stays in the stream.

"It will be especially important this year because it's going to be a low-water year," Dunlevy says.

Merz's land owns a water right dating back to 1857, so he's all but guaranteed his stockwater. But he can't overdraw from the ditch to get it.

The meter meant for that creek is getting calibrated and soon will be re-installed so Merz and the other irrigators along the ditch will know what's flowing there so it doesn't exceed their collective water right of about 2 cubic feet per second.

Not all landowners like the idea of more water monitoring, but Merz doesn't fear his cows will suffer simply from keeping an eye on what's flowing down Upper Phillips Ditch.

"It's not rocket science," says Merz, a retired auto industry executive. "You have to pick you battles and do something smart."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at

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