It’s not uncommon for the agricultural community and environmental organizations to lock horns in public meetings, courtrooms and news coverage.
The Farmers Irrigation District in north-central Oregon has gained the trust, respect and support of environmental groups by producing renewable energy and modernizing its irrigation system. Those upgrades and investments have benefited the environment and improved habitat for fish and wildlife.
“The permitting processes that surround hydro require a lot of coordination with state and federal agencies and environmental organizations, including entities that historically have often butted heads with the irrigation districts and farmers in our state,” says Jed Jorgensen, Energy Trust of Oregon senior renewable energy program manager.
Energy Trust recently provided $900,000 in incentives for FID to upgrade its hydropower facilities, which deliver electricity to the Pacific Power grid. It also provided technical and permitting support.
“Interestingly, what we have found is the districts that start moving down these pathways end up having better relationships with the folks who they may have been fighting with in the past,” Jorgensen notes.
FID started modernizing its delivery system nearly 30 years ago, slowly converting open canals to pressurized pipe. At the same time, farmers started replacing antiquated irrigation systems with highly efficient ones. Collectively, these and other improvements have allowed FID members to cut down on water usage by half, which in turn allows the district to maintain in-stream flows.
“What healthy river systems need more than anything is adequate, clean water throughout the year. By using irrigation water more efficiently, FID is able to leave more water in the stream, which is a win for fish, wildlife and the environment,” says Dick Wanderscheid of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.
“All those things together and how FID went out and engaged stakeholders is a classic example of how you do it right,” Wanderscheid adds. “When the district first embarked on modernization, it took a while to gain the trust of environmental organizations — but once you gain their trust, they can become your biggest supporters.”
Les Perkins, FID district manager, says that the district has in-stream flow agreements with two Oregon departments that oversee the state’s wildlife, fish and environment. As an example, FID through one agreement maintains flows throughout the year to provide quality habitat for salmon, trout and other fish in the spring-fed Greenpoint Creek — an important tributary to the Hood River, which helps to feed the Pacific Northwest’s largest river, the Columbia.
“Greenpoint is a very high-value creek for fish and wildlife habitat, and our district has worked hard for many years to improve that,” Perkins says. “In addition to maintaining in-stream flows, FID worked with others to create spawning gravel beds and build up stream channels, which slow the water down and improve late-season flows.”
And over the past three decades, FID has reduced the number of irrigation diversion points from 34 to 11, says Perkins, who notes: “That alone has had a tremendous positive impact on fish and wildlife habitat.”
Jorgensen emphasizes, “We are finding with these renewable energy projects and irrigation modernization, there are wins for the environmental community, irrigation districts and agricultural producers, as well as the rivers, fish and wildlife. To me, that is a very neat story.”
Irrigation and power
Five irrigation districts in Oregon’s Hood River Valley serve 23,000 irrigated acres, of which 14,000 are in tree fruits including apples, pears and cherries.
Two of the five, including the Farmers Irrigation District and Middle Fork Irrigation District, collectively produce nearly 20% of the power consumed in the county, which has approximately 24,000 residents.
FID has two hydropower plants that produce 25 million to 26 million kilowatt-hours annually, and revenue generated from this electricity fuels infrastructure improvements.
“FID was an early adopter of irrigation modernization, building hydro facilities and working to pressurize its delivery system in the early 1980s,” says Jorgensen. “In 2016, the district upgraded one of its older hydro plants with a more efficient system.”
This system produces 12% more renewable power than the original turbines, bringing in an additional $130,000 in revenue each year.
A variety of funding sources from the federal government are available to irrigation districts and individual farmers for improvements, among them the USDA Rural Energy for America Program, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Bureau of Reclamation WaterSMART (Sustain and Manage America’s Resources for Tomorrow) water and energy efficiency grants.
Low-interest loans are available from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a federal-state partnership, and many states also offer incentives. FID, for example, has received funds from the Oregon Water Resources Department, Energy Trust of Oregon and Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.