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Irrigators barreling ahead to find funding for a $400-million pumping station

PMG PHOTO JENNIFFER GRANT - A pumping station on Lake Billy Chinook could provide a reliable water source for the North Unit Irrigation District into the future. However, one would come with a big cost, an estimated $400 million, with annual operating costs at $5-10 million, more than the current $4.6-million annual NUID budget.

The disastrous 2021 growing season has Jefferson County farmers seriously pursuing a herculean project to create a reliable water supply for their fields. They want to draw water from Lake Billy Chinook to supplement the supply they already draw from the Wickiup Reservoir.

"It can provide a sustainable, reliable source of water that can provide more certainty to our water users," says Mike Britton, executive manager of the North Unit Irrigation District.

"It will give farmers the ability to plan, knowing they have a sustainable water supply."

The need for a new water source

Five or more years of drought have drained the district's primary source of water, Wickiup Reservoir, down to little more than silt and mud puddles.

Adding to the water shortage, the Habitat Conservation Plan irrigation districts signed in January calls for releasing water from Wickiup to preserve wildlife habitat.

Even veteran farmers who've weathered multiple droughts wonder if empty reservoirs are the new normal. It would take extraordinary snowpack and precipitation to recharge the aquifers, moisten the soil, refill the tributaries, and replenish the reservoir. And that's before accounting for the release of water for habitat.

COURTESY SETH MCGLOUGHLIN - Wickiup Reservoir was near empty this past August, several weeks before what would have been the end of a normal irrigation season. The resevoir near LaPine has stored water to serve the North Unit Irrigation District since the 1940s. Water releases for environmental reasons coupled with a severe drought gutted the irrigation season in 2021 and put efforts to find alternative sources for irrigation water, like a pumping station at Lake Billy Chinook, into high gear.

"As we get further into the implementation of the HCP, in-stream flows are going to start ratcheting up," says Britton.

According to the agreement, NUID releases 28,000-acre feet of water for habitat preservation each year. Seven years from now, the agreement requires NUID to release 84,000-acre feet, which is far more than the 48,500 acre feet NUID farmers got during the entire 2021 growing season. Now farmers stand in their bone-dry fields and watch that released water flow right past them into the Pacific Ocean.

The Lake Billy Chinook solution

This plan leaves the water in the river for wildlife until it gets to Lake Billy Chinook.

"If there's a way we can pump water out of Lake Billy Chinook during the summer and pay it back through winter, fall, spring where it benefits steelhead or smolt migration, and other fisheries benefit," says Britton, "then it's a win for us and it's a win for the environment on the Crooked River side."

Pumping from Lake Billy Chinook means about 20,000-acre feet of water stays in the Crooked River each year improving water quality and wildlife habitat. Water also stays in the Middle Deschutes for wildlife. Farmers in Jefferson County get their water from Lake Billy Chinook when they need it, but after the fish and frogs have what they need.

Britton and the NUID has been selling this idea for months to the tribes, environmentalists, utilities.

"Makes a lot of people happy," says Britton. "So far, I haven't found anybody opposed to it. Typically, folks see the benefit right off the bat."

A reliable water supply could prevent a devasting year like 2021 and make an average year more prosperous for NUID farmers.

Giant price tag

If it's such a great idea, why hasn't this happened sooner? The price tag.

Costs to build a pumping station and the piping to the canal comes to an estimated $400 million. That's 100 times the NUID annual budget. In fact, the yearly operating costs could amount to between $5-10 million, also far more than the current $4.6 million NUID budget.

After seeing Jefferson County farmers suffer this past summer, Britton thinks people in high places will come up with the money.

"We anticipate significant funding packages coming out of the government under the Biden administration," says Britton. "If the infrastructure bill that comes out has a water component, we can take advantage of that."

The farming community which Britton figures lost at least $100 million this year easily justifies spending hundreds of millions on the pumping project and aren't shy to ask for federal dollars.

"We are the ones bearing the financial burden for what the country decided we wanted to do for the Endangered Species Act," says farmer Evan Thomas. "We are good at being part of the solution, but we don't have to be the ones to pay for it."

"It's a federal law that's impacting a federal facility," says Britton. "There should be some federal dollars thrown at it."

The Bureau of Reclamation built Wickiup in the 1940s. The project cost $8 million dollars, more than $150 million in today's dollars, which NUID farmers pay back through assessment.

Britton hopes the federal government, or a combination of entities, will fully fund this project.

"We're not trying to place any more financial burden on the farmers themselves," says Britton, "but typically when you go through these processes, whoever you're receiving funding from like to see some skin in the game from the beneficiary."

The path forward

NUID has hired Ferguson Group, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, to hunt for funding opportunities.

Even if NUID had the $400 million in hand today, Britton says it would likely take two years to build the pumping station and bring it online.

While the broad scope of the plan is clear, engineers are still looking for the best place on the lake to install the pumps.

"We would like to locate the pump station where it's least visible to people recreating on the lake," says Britton, "and where it requires the least piping to reach the system that feeds water to patrons."

According to the draft plan, pumps lift the lake water through two 72-inch parallel pipelines up an 800-foot cliff to a regulating reservoir on the canyon rim that holds 2,000-acre feet of water. Another pair of 72-inch pipes would carry the water up a 370-foot incline to the NUID main canal.

Engineers estimate the electricity cost to pump 50,000-acre feet a year will come to about $5.6 million.

The NUID estimates farmers will benefit $4-6 million a year from increased supply and improved crop yields.

Whether the Lake Billy Chinook project happens and when construction begins depends on whether and when the project gets funding.


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