Prairie Creek irrigation

November 21, 2012 01:09 pm

Much of the Silver Lake Ditch spur is being piped to save water and energy and prevent erosion. KATY NESBITT - The Observer
Much of the Silver Lake Ditch spur is being piped to save water and energy and prevent erosion. KATY NESBITT - The Observer

Nearly three miles is being piped to save water and electricity for seven farms

Heading north on the Imnaha Highway one might wonder if prehistoric moles are at work in the pastures of the Prairie Creek neighborhood. The reality? Nearly three miles of irrigation ditch is being piped to save water and electricity for seven farms.

The farmers aren’t a proper collective, yet banded together to leverage money to pipe the spur ditch. Mark Butterfield said he heard about the project late in the planning, but talked to Tom Smith, formerly of the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and found out he was eligible.

“My land is near the pipeline and I irrigate off the ditch,” said Butterfield.

He said his in-kind contribution so far was to stage pipe where it was to be buried, take down fences when necessary, and keep wheel lines out of the way.

The heavy digging was bid out to a contractor; a job the irrigators agreed would be best done by Henderson of Wallowa and their fleet of excavators.

Another cost-saving measure was to bury the pipe side by side, making the digging easier and keeping the overall project cost down, said Cynthia Warnock of the Wallowa County Soil and Water Conservation District.

The water runs through pivot irrigation lines that are highly efficient sprinklers programmed to slowly move across a field and even bend when they get to the pasture’s corner allowing for maximum water coverage of the crop.

The piped spur ditch is off the Silver Lake Ditch, a diversion off the Wallowa River. At the end of the project one section drains into Prairie Creek and another into Farmers Ditch, said Warnock.

Lance Burton of the NRCS said, “It has been estimated/shown that open spur ditches are around 50 percent efficient at delivering water. Also, these spur ditches have pumps placed in them. A pump needs a constant flow of water, to ensure it doesn’t suck up air. This means that you send more water to your pump than you need and there will be a constant flow passed through the pump intake.”

Piping saves water

Instead, Burton said, piping the spur ditch will deliver exactly the amount of water the pumps need, with no air being taken in. Piping saves water from leaking out, evaporating and returning to Prairie Creek. 

There is also the benefit of gravity. The pipelines become pressurized as they descend in elevation. Some producers are able to reduce their pump size (some don’t need pumps anymore) which cuts down their electricity bill.

Environmentally, piping the spur ditch will cut down on erosion along the banks of Prairie Creek.

“The flow is emptied into Prairie Creek, which is running higher than should be, and the higher flows are eroding some of the stream banks,” Burton said.

Butterfield said he liked the simplicity of the project.

“It’s hard to manage these little ditches with several people using them – you end up running more water down the ditch. Projects like this will also keep more water in Wallowa Lake,” said Butterfield.

Warnock said only the spur ditch is being piped; there are advantages of keeping some ditches open like providing wildlife habitat and allowing excess water to recharge the water table.

Piping the ditch will run between $500,000 and $700,000, said Warnock, and is funded in part through Oregon Water and Enhancement Board and Environmental Quality Incentive Programs through the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

The irrigators got a good window within which to work this fall starting after irrigation season and getting the new ditch dug before the ground freezes solid. Warm days and nights have helped move the project along, scheduled to wrap up in November, if all goes well.

Warnock said the NRCS encourages projects like this one where several farmers are involved. “Instead of a Band-Aid here and there, this project increases irrigation efficiency for several irrigators,” said Warnock.

Warnock said two smaller projects have been completed in the last three years and two more are on the horizon.

Another way the district works with farmers to use water more efficiently is through monitoring soil moisture to determine if an irrigator is using too much or not enough. Simply changing nozzles on sprinkler systems has helped, said Warnock.

The monitoring tests soil moisture at 6 inches, 12 inches, and 24 inches. By knowing how much the soil absorbs, irrigators can save water and pumping costs, said Warnock.

The NRCS’s EQIP is a voluntary conservation program that provides assistance to landowners and agricultural producers in a manner that promotes agricultural production and environmental quality as compatible goals. Through EQIP, farmers and ranchers receive financial and technical assistance to implement structural and management conservation practices that optimize environmental benefits on working agricultural land. EQIP is re-authorized through the 2008 Farm Bill.

To see if your farm or ranch qualifies, call the NRCS at 541-426-4521.