By RAELYNN RICARTE
News staff writer
November 15, 2006
Officials from Hood River County’s three irrigation districts learned long ago to be nervous about heavy rainfalls — and the flooding fears of two agencies became very real last week.
A 15-foot-high surge of water and debris ripped away the infrastructure of Farmers and Middle Fork irrigation districts during the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 7.
Because of the severe damage, Farmers is now limping along with production at one-third of capacity at its two hydropower plants. That has brought a drastic decline in the $8,000-$10,000 of daily income used to cover debt service payments and operational costs.
Middle Fork Irrigation District faces an equally grim scenario with a complete shutdown of its three facilities. The agency has lost $4,300 of daily revenue that is needed to offset business expenses.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that we’re sitting near bankruptcy right now,” said Jerry Bryan, manager of Farmers.
He said the district generates $2.5 million each year from hydropower production on the main stem of the Hood River and Mount Defiance tributaries. But, most of that capital is used to repay the $1.2 million that was taken out in 2004 to replace a failed flume and the $3 million borrowed in recent years to underground water that once flowed through open canals.
“If you’re talking per capita, I’ll bet that Hood River County is affected in revenue worse than anywhere in this state by the flooding,” said District 4 Hood River County Commissioner Les Perkins.
He said not only is income directly lost by both irrigation districts, Mt. Hood Railroad and Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort, but the reduction in tourism brought by the closure of Highways 35 and 26 has yet to be calculated. In addition, Perkins said the agricultural industry could also be hard hit economically if the two water providers are unable to get irrigation services back on line by summer.
With nothing now left in its reserve fund, Farmers is faced with an expected $1.5 million in immediate repair costs. The main canal inlet and control gates to the hydro plant have sustained heavy structural damage. In addition, a 200-foot section of the concrete flume has either been severely cracked or broken away altogether. An access road to the facilities that divert water into service channels has washed away and a 500-foot section of the canal has been completely filled by sediment, rocks and woody debris.
“It was sort of like a river-based tsunami that came down and raised all kinds of havoc,” said Mike Kleinsmith, systems supervisor for Farmers.
Dave Compton, manager of Middle Fork, said it appears that a natural dam formed in the upper reaches of Eliot Canyon after glacial material swept down the slopes of Mount Hood. When the debris broke loose during heavy rains, the mud, rocks and logs tumbled downstream and swept away anything in their path.
“It looked like a freight train going by. But it was a wall of water cutting up Laurance Lake Road,” said Compton.
Middle Fork has lost a 300-400-foot section of the 36-inch main pipeline from the Eliot Creek drainage. That conduit is essential to the generation of an annual $1.2 million in hydropower. In addition, a section of pipe now lies 30 feet underground, close to double its usual depth.
“We’re going to have a huge excavation project to dig down and get to that line,” said Compton.
The repair costs for that work are expected to run at least $250,000. In addition, Middle Fork now has a diversion gate that sits 20 feet above the water that once flowed through its infrastructure. The price tag to fix that problem is expected to be $500,000, although firm figures are not yet available.
The immediate concern for both Farmers and Middle Fork is the loss of hydropower revenue, but neither agency will be able to provide irrigation water until the delivery system repairs are completed.
Both Bryan and Compton have put that worry on the back burner since the growing season is still months away. Farmers provides water to 1,400 customers and Middle Fork to 420 patrons. Both agencies are confident that all will be well by the time irrigation water is needed.
“I think this is one of those times when we need the community to provide support and be understanding of our plight,” said Bryan, who is seeking low-interest loans and grants to get restorations done as quickly as possible.
The good news for Farmers is that the $1.2 million high-tech fish screens installed downstream were undamaged by the flooding. And Bryan and Compton are both grateful for the quick cooperation of the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of State Lands, and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in getting the emergency repairs underway.
Bryan is hopeful that good working relationship will continue with PacifiCorp since a power pole must be moved before work can even begin on the damage canal.
Meanwhile, John Buckley, manager of East Fork Irrigation District, is relieved to be watching from the sidelines on this round of disaster. In 1996, his agency encountered the same problems when glacier material filled Clark and Newton creeks and caused $1.2 million in damage to infrastructure.
“We actually didn’t have any damages at all this time,” he said.
However, Buckley joins Bryan and Compton in keeping a watchful eye on weather forecasts. Until the sediment freezes solid on Mount Hood’s receding glaciers, the threat of more debris flows is very real as rainfall continues.