Arnold Irrigation District Infrastructure Modernization Project

By Bill Calder

What is the Arnold Irrigation District’s Modernization Plan?

The Arnold Canal district is proposing an ambitious if not over-reaching $42.7 million project to pipe 13.2 miles of the District’s Main Canal and replacing the historic flume in the Deschutes River wild and scenic corridor with a new road on top of a large mound of dirt. The district says the project will improve water conservation and water supply management, reduce operation and maintenance costs, and improve public safety but the environmental assessment and impacts to property, wildlife, scenic values has not been adequately addressed.

Saving water seems like a good thing, what’s wrong with the plan?

The ultimate benefits are not clear and there are many questions about the validity and comprehensiveness of the environmental assessment including how much is lost and where the water travels. Secondly, there are some very real and significant impacts that have not been adequately addressed, including wildlife and vegetation impacts, construction impacts (including building a new road in a steep and narrow section along the Wild and Scenic Deschutes River), loss of property values, scenic values, impacts to wells, and more. There are multiple other alternatives to piping the length of the canal and building a mountain of soil higher than the existing flume, but the district has not explored them in an honest and forthright manner or engaged the public on them.

Who pays for all this?

The district is seeking federal funding through the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program. As such, there are federal requirements that must be met. The district needs to come up with some funding to match, and there needs to be an authorized watershed management plan in place. Estimated costs of the current proposal if it were allowed are $42,759,000, of which $14,897,000 would be paid by the Arnold Canal District, the Deschutes Basin Board of Control (co-sponsors) and other non-specified federal funding sources. The estimated amount to be paid through the US Dept of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is $27,862,000. So nearly $30 million in U.S. taxpayer dollars to fund a project with benefits for a select few and potential harm to many more.

Will the District’s water users (patrons) have to pay?

The District is already assessing patrons in anticipation of the project moving forward, with no interest in having a dialogue or seeking input. The District says the required match would come by way of an unspecified mix of other grants and loans which they have not identified, as well as patron assessments.

What are the laws and who are the federal agencies involved here?

Since the District is seeking federal funds to pay for the bulk of this, the project needs to follow the guidelines and requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) which are extensive and complex.

What does it mean for homeowners who live along the canal?

Significant, long term impacts which could include losing all the existing trees and vegetation within a 100’+ wide corridor, wells that could run dry, loss of property values, construction impacts, loss of wildlife habitat, and more.

What are the alternatives and why hasn’t the district explored other, less impactful solutions?

There are alternatives, the district has chosen not to pursue them. The pipe may not even solve the problem-–the reason stated for the project to begin with. There are other ways to save water with less impact. There are concrete lining methods which could still keep trees and vegetation healthy and provide a water source, habitat and travel corridor for wildlife and functional wells. This would also maintain the open waterway beauty and property value that’s important to a large number of local residents along the canal. Similarly, rebuilding the flume, or removing the flume and burying the pipe at the existing service grade vs building a giant mound on top of the existing flume, have not been fully vetted. The issue of seepage is a key point in all this and needs to be vetted and understood at a deeper level than has been addressed in the EA, because it’s also what keeps the canal ecosystem alive, wells functioning, and returns water to the aquifers.

This seems like a big project with a lot of issues and potential impacts, how has the public been involved?

There has been very little public input and in fact, very few of the 430 property owners along the canal were notified directly.

Who are the district ‘patrons’?

Arnold says they serve 646 irrigators, but it’s important to know that all of these users are not farmer/producers. In some cases, Arnold water is being diverted for golf courses, gated communities, residential areas, so called hobby-farms, and other uses.

Who is the Farmers Conservation Alliance?

The Farmers Conservation Alliance is a non-profit group based in Hood River, Oregon who markets and sells a fish screen under the name of Farmers Screen ™ and as such is deeply involved in efforts to get irrigation districts to invest in new technology and new infrastructure.

Why is the Famers Conservation Alliance involved in this project?

It is not entirely clear. However, the Alliance has staff that have assisted other irrigation districts on similar projects. While the FCA states that their consultancy is paid for by the National Resources Conservation Service, Arnold Irrigation District has not disclosed the contractual agreement with the FCA including any potential investments and/or financial exchange. The district has abdicated most if not all of the responsibility for the Environmental Assessment including the public process to the FCA including all questions and feedback.