Water diversion proposal would prevent drought

Officials now have to decide if benefits would equal the $450 million price tag

Officials for a proposed water diversion project say it could save Jackson County more than enough water to fill Emigrant Lake every year. Now they're figuring out whether the benefits outweigh the project's $450 million price tag.

If approved, the Water for Irrigation, Streams, and Economy — WISE — Project would pipe 600 miles of canals countywide. A $250,000 cost-benefit analysis, funded by a grant from the Oregon Water Resources Department, kicked off in October and will be completed by June 30.

"It's not new water. It's just more efficiently and effectively managed," said Steve Mason, WISE project manager.

Mason presented a breakdown of the project to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners Wednesday.

Replacing the county's aging irrigation canals with pipes could save as much as 45,000 acre-feet of water per year. About 39,000 acre-feet will fill Emigrant Lake to capacity.

"We're talking a lot of water," Mason said.

Saving that much water would help protect against drought and increase stream flows in Bear and Little Butte creeks during irrigation season, helping improve salmon habitat and riparian areas.

The analysis, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, will determine how much money Talent, Medford and Rogue River Valley irrigation districts will save on operation costs. The project would be funded by state and federal dollars and possibly bonds. Officials are confident the project also would yield investments from generated hydropower.

"It's going to generate some kind of revenue stream, whether we use it to pay back bonds with or offset costs," said Bob Jones, WISE chairman.

The Talent Irrigation District plans to pipe a mile of the leaky Talent Canal, making it no longer necessary to divert Ashland Creek water to supplement supplies, TID Manager Jim Pendleton said.

A start date is dependent on when TID can secure funding for the $1.5 million project.

"We're going to reach out for any funds that are available," Pendleton said.

The project would remove the Ashland Creek diversion dam and its fish ladder, allowing the water to stay in Ashland Creek and improving water quality. (Correction: see below)

"We wouldn't need the Ashland Creek water," Pendleton said. "The whole diversion would be removed."

Construction for the WISE Project has an estimated 2016 start date.

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com.

Correction: The diversion that would be removed has been corrected in this version.

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