TERREBONNE, Ore (KTVZ) -- There are still many irrigation canals running through Central Oregon, but many are being replaced by pipes -- for the best of reasons, supporters say.
Many miles have been piped over the past several years, to make more efficient use of water. And more such projects are on the way. A big one had a formal groundbreaking Tuesday.
You may remember last month, when the Deschutes River turned a murky green color.
It was due largely to extremely low water levels in Wickiup Reservoir.
"What we saw had never happened before, with Wickiup being drained." Craig Horrell, manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District, said Tuesday:
That was in part due to this summer's drought and recent environmental regulations for water usage and to protect wildlife habitat, such as the spotted frog.
But agriculture's demand for water in the canals for irrigation remains, which is why irrigation districts said moving it as efficiently as possible is important.
"We lose about 40 to 50 percent in this canal through evaporation and seepage,” Horrell said.
The Central Oregon Irrigation District broke ground on a project to pipe the Pilot Butte Canal near Terrebonne.
For more than 100 years, the Pilot Butte Canal has remained nearly untouched, but Tuesday’s ground breaking was the first step to completely piping it.
Over the next 30 years, the canal will be completely piped, but the first phase of the project will pipe 7.9 miles of the canal near Smith Rock.
The $2 million Pilot Butte Canal piping project is funded through the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program and Oregon Lottery funds.
It's actually one of more than 20 Oregon irrigation districts working on similar modernization efforts as part of a program created by the Farmers Conservation Alliance in partnership with Energy Trust of Oregon.
Horrell said it will immediately save 158 cubic feet per second of water when completed.
While canal operators say piping them seem logical, there are environmental concerns.
Opponents say wildlife uses the decades-old water source, as do area trees.
A similar piping project in the Tumalo Irrigation District faces a request for a preliminary injunction to block it by opponents claiming it violates the Environmental Protection Act.
People with homes along the canal also can oppose the efforts, as the High Desert has seen with past piping projects.
"Change is hard, when you're used to having a canal on your property or run through your property, but we will work with those residents as best we can,” Horrell said. “The opportunity is far greater for the Deschutes River."
Horrell said attempts have been made over the years to pipe the canals, but current demand finally forced their hand.