BEND, OR-- Allocation of Deschutes River water has been a constant source of debate in Central Oregon for over a hundred years. The families who dug irrigation ditches with shovels at the end of the 19th century hauled dirt with horses and built wooden flumes to transport water over rough volcanic topography. They were an intrepid handful of farmsteaders who needed a steady supply of water for wheat and potatoes, utilizing gravity to move water through the open air of the high desert. They could not have anticipated the mass number of end users that stretches over 700 miles of the canal system today.
Much has changed since those early pioneer days; population has exploded, irrigated land has expanded and the demands of the Deschutes River are ever-increasing. Yet despite those changes, many of the ancient canals and ditches remained because they are valued for their cultural, historical and aesthetic benefits.
The historic Swalley family constructed the main irrigation canal known as, "The Swalley." Its headworks were built 1/2 mile upstream of the Tweet Dam, just north of downtown Bend. The family formed the Deschutes Reclamation and Irrigation Company in 1899 with much of the city of Bend within its boundaries.
The Swalley Irrigation District today is a smaller piece of the water puzzle that comprises the Deschutes water basin. It is one of the smallest of the eight districts at just over 4,500 acres of irrigated land. Since 1995, the District’s annual diversions from the Deschutes River have effectively been reduced by nearly one-third, leaving more water in the river for salmon, steelhead, other fish and wildlife. Despite its smaller size the district continues to push forward to modernize water transport in the form of underground piping. The Rogers Lateral Pipeline project is the latest system improvement, scheduled to be completed in April of 2020. Some say Swalley has put more water back into the river than any other district.
Kate Fitzpatrick, Program Director for Deschutes River Conservancy, hopes that Swalley’s improvements will be a model for other Central Oregon Irrigation Districts. She also noted the successes of other piping projects in Sisters and Tumalo Districts. Fitzpatrick said, "Having a thriving river and all that entails may be worth some of the tradeoffs...as a community who do we want to be? Do we value our natural resources?"
Over the next five years all eight Irrigation Districts plan to pipe close to a half million feet of canals across Central Oregon. Their goal is to increase water reliability for farmers and fish species, decrease energy costs, and reduce overall operation and maintenance costs of water delivery.