If the Talent Irrigation District's diversion dam and fish ladder were to disappear from Bear Creek near the Oak Street bridge and its water delivered by pressured pipe, Steve Mason knows the benefits would be great.

If the Talent Irrigation District's diversion dam and fish ladder were to disappear from Bear Creek near the Oak Street bridge and its water delivered by pressured pipe, Steve Mason knows the benefits would be great.

Cheaper TID operating costs, water conservation and better habitat for threatened coho salmon would translate into net gains should the Oak Street and two other Bear Creek diversions disappear as part of an ambitious WISE project to pipe about 200 miles of exposed irrigation canals.

"We know the water's there, we know the engineering's there," says Mason, a hydrologist working on the Water for Irrigators, Streams and Economy project for about a decade. "Now we need to know if the cost-benefit is there."

Mason and others are one large step from learning whether and how long it would take for the up to $450 million WISE project to pay for itself in economic benefits if completed, or whether it's just another pipe dream.

The WISE project is up for a nearly quarter-million-dollar grant to fund a cost-benefit analysis that could give the multi-agency group leverage in developing studies needed to replace open ditches with pipes for three irrigation districts that use the Bear Creek and Little Butte Creek systems.

The analysis will put dollar signs on water savings, determine whether on-demand water use by irrigators could improve crop output or allow some landowners to upgrade their crops, and determine how much money TID, Medford Irrigation District and the Rogue River Valley Irrigation District would save in operation costs.

The analysis will look at the financial benefits of more wild salmon grown in the Bear Creek Basin because of more in-stream water, and even quantify how higher projected water levels at Emigrant, Hyatt and Howard Prairie lakes would generate more money from fishing and boating use.

Recently Gov. John Kitzhaber designated WISE an Oregon Solutions project and appointed state Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point, and Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, to assist the group in the process.

"If both of these things work out the way I hope they will, they will significantly move the project forward," Mason says. "It's the most excited I've been about the project in a long time."

The leaders of WISE were scheduled to learn Monday whether a review team recommends the project for funding through the state Water Resources Department's Water Conservation, Re-use and Storage Grant Program.

A 30-day public comment period on the applications begins Feb. 6.

The review team's recommendations and the public comments will be crafted into the department's final recommendations in March.

The Oregon Water Resources Commission was set to choose what grants will be funded during its April 19-20 meeting in Salem.

However, the money available for the program could rise or drop based on what the Oregon Legislature decides during February meetings.

It is also contingent on the state issuing bonds backed by the Oregon Lottery in May.

The competition is stiff.

In all, 23 applications totaling just under $2.3 million are up for an estimated $1.25 million of available money.

Other applications include a $100,000 request by the Medford Water Commission and several Bear Creek Valley cities to develop what they call a Rogue Valley Cooperative Urban Water Conservation Strategy.

If chosen, WISE could have its money by July and the analysis would take six to nine months, Mason says.

A preliminary feasibility study estimates that a fully completed WISE project during an average water year could provide more than 45,000 acre-feet of additional water to the region — enough to fill both Emigrant and Agate reservoirs.

The extra water would be available for agricultural uses as well as higher streamflows that would improve water quality and fish habitat in the Bear Creek Basin, a major nursery for the Rogue River Basin's wild salmon and steelhead.

"It's basically modernizing our canal systems and becoming a lot more efficient," says Larry Menteer, Jackson County's watermaster. "We can't make water, so this is one way we can improve the system."

The Water Conservation, Re-use and Storage Grant Program was established by the Legislature in 2008. It was designed to fund planning studies that determine the feasibility of developing a variety of water-conservation and water re-use projects and improving storage facilities.

The Legislature last year approved the program to run through 2013, and project applications were due last month.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.