Drought conditions have forced at least one irrigation district to shut down early.
Several others have reduced deliveries due to dwindling water supplies.
But the Three Sisters Irrigation District has piped most of its canals, reducing water losses to the point most farms have all the water they need even during the ongoing drought.
“Back when I started as manager in 1997, I remember a farmer banging on my desk saying ‘if I hadn’t drained the creek dry, I wasn’t doing my job,'” recalled Marc Thalacker, manager of the Three Sisters Irrigation District.
Except for the head gate where the district diverts water from Wychus Creek near Sisters, there’s almost no water flowing through open irrigation canals in the Sisters area any more.
“When we were at 50% water, I could irrigate maybe 25% of my property,” said Tygh Redfield, a Sisters area farmer who used to flood irrigate. “Now when we are at 50% water, I can irrigate my entire property with pivots and overhead irrigation, and that’s mainly because of the piping. My production has tripled.”
The Three Sisters irrigation has spent nearly $50 million dollars the past 20 years piping its canals, essentially eliminating seepage and evaporation.
As a result, the district doesn’t pull as much water out of Wychus Creek, leaving more water for fish and still delivers 25% more water in times of drought.
“The typical 200 acre farm saves $25,000 to $30,00 a year in electrical bills” because they aren’t pumping water, Thalacker said. The piped water is already pressurized.
“Just having the additional water and the assurance for it being there and not having to wait a day for it to wet down a ditch, it has changed everything for farmers.”
“We started planting this in vegetables in 2010. That was the first season that the pressurized water was available in this sub-district of the TSID. For me it was the beginning,” said Sarahlee Lawrence, Rainshadow Organics.
Lawrence’s family grew hay and raised horses on this land.
Today, thanks to a reliable water supply and her emphasis on organic farming, this same land is producing vegetables, meats and grains that feed families locally.
TSID’s modernization includes hydropower generating stations which capture the energy of pressurized water flowing through the pipes. The electricity that is sold to Pacific Corps, helping the district and farmers pay down their debt while reducing the utility company’s reliance on coal fired power plants to meet demand.
Thalacker says TSID is now climate and drought resilient.
The proof is most hay farmers in Sisters getting a second cutting this summer. Some will supplement with well water and get a third cutting.
Making the Three Sisters Irrigation District an example of how to thrive during a drought and the envy of farmers across the arid west.