BEND, Ore. — In the late 1980s, the state of Oregon made thousands of miles of streams in Central Oregon’s Deschutes River watershed off limits to dam construction, to protect steelhead and trout.
So it may be surprising to learn that today, that watershed is home to some of the first new hydropower facilities in the Northwest.
A series of small dams and turbines are being constructed along the vast network of canals and waterways that carry water from the Deschutes to irrigate farms in Central Oregon. About 2,000 homes in the area run on electricity generated by water that flows through irrigation pipes.
Jed Jorgensen, with the Energy Trust of Oregon, says that while these “in-conduit projects” are small, they provide renewable energy and stimulate the economy without posing any additional risk to fish or degrading their habitat. Federal and state regulations require updated fish screens on irrigation waterways used to generate electricity.
Marc Thalacker manages the Three Sisters Irrigation District, which plans to install a .8-megawatt plant along one of its pipes next year. He says most of the irrigation districts in the area are considering some kind of hydropower project. The Central Oregon Irrigation District completed its $25 million Juniper Ridge hydropower project last year. It generates enough power for 1,400 homes. The district is scouting several other sites for more hydro-electricity generation.
Thalacker says selling electricity will provide income to irrigation districts that are losing money due to urbanization and spending more trying to reduce their impact on the watershed.
“It’s a way to help pay for the cost of our conservation projects that are helping to restore stream flow for both fish and water quality,” he says.
Thalacker says that for a century, his district operated without considering conservation. “Prior to 1997, it was the water master’s job to make sure that the stream was dry in town so the farmers were getting all their water.”
About half the water diverted from the creek leaked out the bottom of earthen canals. Thalacker says irrigators eventually recognized they needed to find a way to leave more water in the stream or risk a lawsuit over harm to native fish species. The solution: replace the leaky canals with watertight pipes, and leave the conserved water in the stream for fish. Piping up the canals was expensive, but it also created enough pressure and drop along the system to enable the district to generate a little hydropower and help pay for the project.
Oregon’s hydro-electricity construction boomlet has been driven in part by the state’s now-defunct Business Energy Tax Credit, which offset a large chunk of the cost of such projects. The push has also been aided by the development of technology that makes it easier to generate power along streams with even moderate flows.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages dozens of large irrigation projects in the West, is exploring opportunities to construct small scale, in-conduit hydro projects similar to those in Central Oregon.
John Devoe, with the conservation group Water Watch, says replacing canals with pipes is beneficial if the conserved water goes back into streams. And according to the law, farmers only have the right to generate electricity using water that’s being diverted primarily for irrigation. But Devoe worries that in practice, by building the hydro projects, they’re gaining a new water right that could make efforts to balance water use more difficult.
“In our view of the world those irrigation districts should not be getting into hydro using the public’s water to generate revenue in a way that was not part of the original grant.”
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