When the Hood River Watershed Group (HRWG) met March 22 for its regular monthly meeting, members and interested citizens — from Hood River and The Dalles — got a first glimpse of the Hood River Water Conservation Strategy, presented by Ed Salminen and Nicklas Christensen, Watershed Professionals Network, and Cindy Thieman, HRWG coordinator.
Looking forward 20 years, the conservation strategy has fleshed out a list of project ideas, from sprinkler upgrades to expanded storage.
“What is special about the water conservation strategy is that it identified how much there still remains to do and what a difference it can make for long-term reliability in irrigation and for fish, because the salmon are getting the short end of the stick — irrigation rights are senior to instream water rights,” Thieman explained. “A lot of these strategies are to make irrigation water more reliable in the long run, but make a big difference to the fish instream. And that’s of particular importance to our partners, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.”
One strategy — modifying points of diversion on the Columbia — would save about 45 cfs (cubic feet per second), but cost $4 million to build the infrastructure and an additional $800,000 annually for upkeep. To do this, a portion of the existing East Fork water right could be transferred to a water right on the Columbia, but “is probably not a strategy to be pursued,” Salminen told the crowd, based on initial cost, the uphill terrain and maintenance.
Strategies with the best potential for success are ones that are currently being utilized and expanded, such as on-farm irrigation upgrades and conveyance systems. New technologies make it possible for farmers to know exactly how much water has been depleted from the soil and how much needs to be returned, micro-sprinklers prevent runoff, and better filters make management of the system more efficient.
Since agriculture uses 90 percent of the water diverted to the watershed, “that really focused a lot of our conservation strategies — improving the efficiency of agricultural irrigation,” said Thieman.
On-farm irrigation sprinkler upgrades and soil moisture monitoring could see a potential savings of 32 cfs in the next 20 years, although Salminen said “most likely” that number will be closer to 26 cfs (about 80 percent farmer participation).
Conveyance systems are another big part of the picture, or “converting the remaining open irrigation canals in the basin to pipelines,” Thieman said. “Roughly 20 cfs could be saved just from that activity alone.”
A newer idea: Voluntary fallowing of annual crops in dry years, or compensating farmers who have annual crops, such as hay or pasture, with a dollar amount similar to the one they would have received had they been able to irrigate. The potential savings is 17 cfs basin wide, reported Salminen.
“It’s an option during a drought year,” said Thieman, one that was used by Middle Fork Irrigation District in the summer of 2015. “That’s called a temporary lease on a water right.”
Implementing these strategies won’t come cheaply. The group is looking at about a $50 million price tag in the next 20 years, but, “given the heavy value of agriculture, water conservation is going to have a big effect on our economy down the line.
“The Hood River Watershed Group and the Soil and Water Conservation District are bringing in grants every year to help put these projects on the ground, but we’re going to have to cast our net farther and get creative in our funding because our traditional funding sources won’t cover the $50 million needed in the next 20 years,” she said.
The strategy is a continuation of the Hood River Basin study that originated with Les Perkins, Farmers Irrigation District general manager, and Mike Benedict, former Hood River County Planning Department director, several years ago, said Thieman. Midway through the process, HRWG “took the info and rolled it into the conservation strategy,” she explained.
It’s a way of “planning for the future we are realistically going to have,” said Watershed Project Manager Megan Saunders.
According to climate studies, that future will probably mimic what we saw in 2015, she said, making conservation efforts crucial.
“Last summer was a wakeup call for a lot of people,” she said. “The reality is that 20 years down the road, 50 years down the road, glaciers are going to be a lot smaller and we’ll have more hot, dry summers like last summer. We’re looking at less water in our streams, which is not a positive experience for our farmers or fish, or anything else in the water.”
But, with management, “we can have the same amount of water that we currently do,” she added.
In the end, both fish and farm will benefit from these measures — whatever the future holds.
“This is an ongoing story,” concluded Thieman. “This is not the end of the story. There are always going to be more information and updates.”