(Update: Adding video, comments from North Unit Irrigation Unit executive manager)
In spite of significant cost, irrigation district official says benefits worth it
CULVER, Ore. (KTVZ) -- After several years of continual drought, it's getting more and more difficult for Jefferson County farmers to harvest their crops. The North Unit Irrigation District believes it has a feasible, though pricey way to solve the water crisis: pumping water from Lake Billy Chinook.
Irrigation district Executive Manager Mike Britton said Monday the proposal would have water drawn from the lake from April 1 to Oct. 31, based on demand.
"This year, North Unit ran out of water in August," Britton said. "Our main source of water, Wickiup Reservoir, is basically dry."
Over the years, Britton said water allocation has lowered to "0.8 acre-feet per acre for Deschutes River lands and 0.4 acre-feet per acre for Crooked River lands," making times especially challenging for farmers. Prior to the drought, Britton, said Deschutes River farmers received "2 acre-feet per acre, while Crooked River farmers received 1 acre-feet per acre."
"What happens is, people have to dry up other portions of their farm, bundle their water and put it on one part of their farm to be able to get a crop to harvest," Britton said.
By pumping water from Lake Billy Chinook, Britton said it is not only a sustainable source for farmers, but provides ecological environmental benefits in the Crooked and Deschutes rivers.
"Which means it can provide better water for fish and wildlife habitat, can improve water quality, and it can improve water temperatures. There's a wide range of benefits that we believe can come along with this project," Britton said.
In spite of the high cost to get the project in motion, he said the benefits would far exceed any drawbacks. Funding is their biggest hurdle.
"Initial estimates have it around $400 million to $500 million. The ongoing operations and maintenance will be another several million dollars a year to operate," Britton said.
Due to the scale of the project, Britton said it would need federal funding -- and to keep it going, the beneficiaries of the project also would need to contribute.
He said it's important to note that they would not be pumping additional water to their existing 200 cubic feet per second (cfs) water rights on the Crooked River.
Britton said the amount of water pumped from the lake would hardly be discernible, so it should not be a deterrent for those who visit the popular scenic and boating destination.