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A study funded by a recent grant aims to help the Owyhee Irrigation District determine how and where to modernize.
OID General Manager Jay Chamberlin said the approximately $250,000 grant, through Energy Trust of Oregon and Pacific Power & Light, is funding the evaluation by Hood River, Ore.-based Farmers Conservation Alliance.
“They are looking at every aspect: hydro potential, gravity pressurized sprinkler potential, canal lining, water conservation. … Really, the project is being completely evaluated and assessed,” Chamberlin said. “It’s almost an inventory of what we are doing now and what we can do to improve.”
Farmers Conservation Alliance spokeswoman Marla Keethler said Owyhee Irrigation District enrolled in its Irrigation Modernization Program, “and we are currently working with them to understand their district’s needs and goals as we work towards developing a system improvement plan and eventually a modernization strategy.”
Chamberlin said the modernization study will help identify the best opportunities to maintain and improve function even as OID deals with current facility needs and some recent changes in how customers use water.
After irrigation season ends each fall, Nyssa, Ore.-based Owyhee Irrigation District starts projects such as repairing or automating infrastructure, and replacing some sections of open canal with pressurized pipeline.
An upcoming major project aims to stabilize more than one-third of Malheur Siphon, an above-ground, 80-inch steel pipe that runs for more than four miles north to the Malheur River. Chamberlin said the approximately $750,000 project is expected to start in early October and conclude in early March, ahead of the 2019 irrigation season’s start.
“This phase will complete the most difficult section of repairs,” he said. The pipe, whose foundation legs have been moving in unstable clay soil, is wrinkled in three different locations, he said. Additional phases will be completed later as OID builds its reserve funds.
The Owyhee Irrigation District serves about 120,000 irrigated acres and more than 1,200 customers in Oregon and Idaho. Its annual budget is about $4 million, funded by a customer charge per acre of $65 — up from $62 last year and including $1.50 special assessment for the siphon project.
Chamberlin said the district in the last decade has seen client farms become fewer in number, but larger overall.
“It really changes the distribution of water,” he said.
Many of the larger farms grow one crop on 100 acres instead of three or four, and use pivot irrigation systems that in the long term can reduce total water usage but in the short term run frequently, Chamberlin said. “With pivot and sprinkler irrigation, you can’t get behind because you don’t have the deep percolation.”
Similarly, drip irrigation rarely shuts down altogether as it moves water across different zones in large acreages. Chamberlin said this constant, level irrigation flow means peak demand periods are less pronounced and water can stay longer in Owyhee Reservoir.
Owyhee Reservoir was about 60 percent full in mid-July, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported, including water left from the heavy snowmelt of 2016-17. OID customers this year received full allotments of water, Chamberlin said, but the district has tried to stay conservative and leave as much in the reservoir as possible in the event low snowpack materializes again this year in the large Owyhee River drainage.
The district early this year tapped its supplemental Snake River water right more than usual, he said. The Owyhee River is a Snake tributary.