Priming the pump

Two thoughts come to mind when considering a project to replace 200 miles of irrigation canals and ditches with pressurized pipes: It should have been done years ago, and it should be now, but finding the money will be a huge hurdle.

The Water for Irrigators, Streams and Economy project eventually aims to pipe 200 miles of exposed canals in the Talent, Medford and Rogue River Valley irrigation districts. Toward that end, the WISE project needs to complete a cost-benefit analysis to determine how long it would take to pay for the investment.

Answering that question apparently requires a $250,000 study. WISE has applied for a state grant to fund the study, but the application must compete with 22 others. All told, the applicants are seeking $2.3 million, but there is only $1.2 million up for grabs. The state Water Resources Commission will award the grants in April.

Given the state's strapped financial condition and the budget-cutting climate in Washington, D.C., it's unfortunate that a quarter of a million dollars must be spent to confirm what most observers understand intuitively: Open canals are a tremendously wasteful, inefficient way to deliver irrigation water. Leakage and evaporation combine to reduce the quantity of water dramatically.

A preliminary study already estimated that during an average water year, a fully completed project would save 45,000 acre-feet of water — enough to fill Hyatt and Howard Prairie reservoirs.

That's a tremendous improvement. It would allow more water to be left in the streams of the Bear Creek Basin to benefit salmon and steelhead. It would contribute to the success of the resorts at the reservoirs. And it could allow some farmers to upgrade their crops or increase yields.

The trouble will be convincing Congress to pony up as much as $450 million. The state certainly doesn't have that kind of money, and federal officials would have to be convinced the project would return economic benefits equal to the outlay.

Given that reality, $250,000 sounds like money well spent. It wouldn't be even a drop in the bucket of a $450 million project.

A public comment period on the state grant applications begins next week.

The money available could be affected by decisions the Legislature makes during its February session, and the state must issue Oregon Lottery-backed bonds in May to fund the grant program.

The WISE project is a worthy venture and deserves approval.

Share This Story