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To cover or not to cover the Ashland ditch

One hot Saturday afternoon I decided to take my daily walk along Ashland’s lovely, tree-lined irrigation canal. A couple of blocks into my stroll I stumbled across the still-fresh carcass of a young fawn.

A woman sat, frantically making calls on her cellphone. The deer had slipped into the water, breaking its neck. The lady had cradled the poor thing in her arms until its spirit left its body. She was now trying to find an agency to handle the remains — a daunting task on the weekend.

Having previously written about Ashland’s waterways, I knew that some of the city’s drinking water comes from the Ashland Lateral Canal, as it is technically called. Leaving a carcass in the stream to rot until offices opened Monday would not have been well-advised. One of the perks of my job is that I’ve ended up with the contacts for multiple agencies in my phone. A call to the Water Department, and the body was removed before things got nasty.

A few weeks after this incident, I saw notices about the city wanting to encapsulate the open canal in a pipe. My initial reaction was that this was a good idea.

Then, fellow Ashlanders began voicing concerns that piping the water would kill off hundreds of carbon-sequestering, mature trees and remove a source of sustenance for local wildlife. I’m as fond of trickling streams and leafy overhead canopies as anyone, and certainly would not like to see them disappear.

Yet, I also understand some of the reasons for wanting to cover the ditch. Vulnerability to contamination from pesticides, dog feces and animal carcasses aside, open irrigation canals lead to significant water-loss — partially through evaporation, partially through seepage.

Concerns over seepage extend beyond water loss. Canal water can work its way into rodent burrows, eventually undermining the stability of the earth supporting the ditch. In the event of an earthquake or major storm, a levy could fail, sending massive amounts of water and mud gushing down a hillside. A version of this scenario actually occurred along the Medford Irrigation Ditch in Phoenix.

Ashland City Attorney David Lohman suggested that some of the neighbors who are now pressing to keep the canal uncovered would be the same people suing the city for damages to their homes.

In the immediate future, residents can relax. A municipal study found “no evidence of direct canal leakage downslope despite the obvious and innumerable breaches in the canal liner.”

With compelling arguments pro and con, I am not taking a position on this contentious battle. Instead, I will share some facts I discovered investigating the matter.

A rumor surfaced that Ashland’s discussion on piping the canal could be waylaid by a pending lawsuit from the Klamath Tribe against the TID for using water sourced from Klamath tributaries. I checked with numerous agencies, and no one with whom I spoke had heard of such a lawsuit in the works.

To the contrary, a “Coalition of the Willing” frequently convenes to collaboratively ensure that all Klamath River stakeholders’ needs and concerns are being met.

How does any of this apply to Ashland?

The pipe project under discussion would only entail the city-owned, 2.4-mile Lateral Canal. While the city receives water from the Talent Irrigation District via its “Ashland Canal,” Ashland’s Lateral Canal is not actually part of the TID system. (I was admonished to underscore that distinction.)

The Talent Irrigation District (along with MID and RRVID) simply manages the irrigation systems belonging to the federal Bureau of Reclamation in the Rogue Valley.

Between 1903 and 1962, the Bureau of Reclamation developed dams, canals and powerplants — co-ordinating with the California-Oregon Power Company — in both the Klamath River and Rogue River watersheds. In this process, mountain tributaries were occasionally redirected from one watershed to the other.

Creeks that would normally flow southward into Irongate Reservoir on the Klamath were dammed to form Hyatt Lake (built in 1922, rehabbed in the 1950s) and Howard Prairie Reservoir (late 1950s). Those waters are currently being diverted to turn Bureau of Reclamation’s Greensprings Powerplant’s turbines, then directed either into Emigrant Lake or the Ashland Canal.

Put simply, a portion of Ashland’s drinking water, as well as the Bear Creek Valley’s irrigation water, is sourced from Klamath River tributaries, leaving us vulnerable to contention over water rights. Though this is not a current problem, TID’s Jim Pendleton pointed out that anyone could file a lawsuit — meritorious or not.

In the meantime, a local group of stakeholders (called the WISE project) has been meeting for more than a decade to figure out a plan for piping open irrigation canals throughout the valley. Though Ashland’s Lateral Canal is not part of that discussion, Ashland’s pipe proponents are not alone in their thinking.

Trees line the Ashland Lateral Canal in Ashland. Photo by Nina Egert