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Hope for irrigators

ROGUE RIVER — Grants Pass Irrigation District Manager Dan Shepard looks at the new pumping plant that will replace Savage Rapids Dam and he knows the old water woes of the past are about to be washed away.

Equipment failures within the dam's octogenarian pumping system regularly meant the district's Tokay Canal north of the Rogue River dam would go dry, leaving irrigators angry they'd be charged for water whether it reached them or not.

"They'd get their water half the time," Shepard says. "Sore subject."

But that subject should be history next month when the district enters the 21st Century with a new electric pumping station to replace the 88-year-old dam, which will be removed this summer to improve Rogue fish passage.

Contractors are in the last stages of building the new water-delivery system that will pump water continuously into the GPID canals around Rogue River and Grants Pass beginning in mid-May.

The system includes a 4121/2-foot pipe suspended 5 feet above the Rogue's 100-year flood elevation. The pipe will deliver 27 cubic feet of water per second into the Tokay Canal, which feeds irrigators in the Rogue River and northeastern Grants Pass areas.

"For a long time, those guys definitely got the short end of the stick," says Shepard, who says the district has spent close to $600,000 this decade alone at fixing the system feeding the Tokay Canal.

"Now, we think we got it covered," Shepard says.

John Thorne, a rancher and orchardist off East Evans Creek, says the $3,200 check he writes to GPID annually comes with an expectation that the ditches will remain flowing.

"Most of the time I get water on my days, but there's at least once or twice a month that there's a dry ditch," Thorne says.

"Let's hope it works, considering what I pay for it," Thorne says.

The pumping plant is the carrot dangled by conservation groups, state and federal fish biologists and others to the district as a way to remove the Rogue's largest single impediment to wild salmon and keep the district afloat.

It also means GPID will continue to deliver water and comply with a federal court ruling that it no longer use the dam for irrigation diversion after last year's irrigation season ended.

Water will divert through intakes and down gravity-fed tunnels into 12 wells, each connected to an electric pump. Four pumps each will push water toward the Tokay Canal as well as the two gravity-fed canals on the dam's south side, where the majority of GPID's 8,894 irrigated acres lie.

The intakes are screened and the velocity of water flowing into the intakes is designed not to draw infant salmon migrating downstream like the old screens on the dam.

"In theory, they'll swim by and not notice it's there," Shepard says.

Out of its $1.6 million annual budget, GPID has budgeted $230,000 to cover its electric bills, Shepard says.

The money comes from patrons, who pay $161 to irrigate their first acre and about $80 for the second acre, Shepard says.

The district, which feeds primarily small orchards, hobby farms, gardens and lawns, has 8,046 patrons and averages slightly more than 1 acre per patron.

Since 1921, GPID has relied on two "hydrocones" to pump water 127 feet uphill and into the Tokay Canal. Though it worked well for years, it struggled this past decade with breakdowns. Crumpled concrete from constant retrofittings made future fixes nearly impossible, Shepard says.

"When they built this thing they did a good job. They really did," Shepard says. These breakdowns weren't from lack of maintenance. They were 80-plus years old. Anything 80-plus years old needs a retrofit."

When a debris raft took out the fish screens and hydrocones in 2005, the Tokay Canal was dry from late July through fall. It almost cost Thorne his 5-acre apple orchard

"They had to truck water here to keep that orchard alive," Thorne says. "I almost lost it."

Shepard says workers from the contractors, Slaydon Construction Group, will test the pumps April 14 and 15 while crews also prepare the dam for removal in pieces throughout the summer and early fall.

"It's sad to see it go, but I've spent way too many Sundays out here trying to fix this thing, just trying to make it work," Shepard says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.