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Irrigation system upgrade gets a forum

Southern Oregon hydrologists and water resource managers have long sought to shore-up elements of the region's leaky irrigation operations.

They won government backing  in 2012 for a $250,000 feasibility study examining the aging irrigation systems. Now the state's business and industrial executives, along with state legislative and agency leaders, are taking up the matter.

The Water for Irrigators, Streams and Economy (WISE) project is a key agenda item to be considered Tuesday at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

Two years ago, Oregon Business Plan chose to "Fix PERS, Invest Wisely in Education, Build the Bridge." That goal resonated within the state but the Columbia River bridge project fell by the wayside when Washington state legislators opposed it.

Bill Thorndike, who will be a panelist during the WISE discussion, said the bridge issues won't fade away as long as it remains the chief bottleneck along the I-5 corridor between Canada and Mexico. Nevertheless, there are plenty of other issues to be confronted.

Choosing an incremental path, Oregon Business Plan is building on themes it developed last year, highlighted by: Connecting education to careers and skilled job openings that are going unfilled throughout the state; investing in infrastructure that would allow communities and businesses to prosper and connect with the global marketplace; and strengthening rural economies by capitalizing on Oregon's advantages in the production of food and forest products.

Ron Fox,  executive director of Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc., said installing a $300 million to $400 million irrigation system upgrade would not only reduce water loss by 30 percent during transfer from the source to end user, but provide growers with a consistent supply when needed for much of the nearly 45,000 acres of agriculture land in the Bear Creek drainage and Little Butte Creek area.

He noted that Jackson County's passage of a ban on crops containing genetically modified organisms was a clear signal about the sort of water system that's needed. 

"The passage of the GMO measure has defined the kind of agriculture we're going to have in Jackson County going forward," Fox said. "Redevelopment of a 21st century irrigation system would supply water on demand pretty much any day as opposed to the present delivery every two weeks. If you are growing produce and row crops, you can't wait two weeks to irrigate."

Improving the water delivery system would reduce leakage and evaporation, allowing more water to be delivered — or more water to be left in streams. 

Either way, Fox said, there would be environmental and monetary gains as well as enhanced stream flows.

Tuesday's gathering will provide a statewide platform for a local and area issue, Fox said, putting it into the "ears and eyes of legislators from Portland to Pendleton and Lake Oswego to Lincoln City."

Should WISE get backing at federal, state and local levels, Fox said, the project could still need three to five years in planning and a similar period for construction.

Thorndike said skills training in rural Oregon remains a paramount ambition and cashing in on the state's agriculture capabilities would be a significant benefit to less-populated communities.

"Last year, we introduced the whole question of what can we do to reduce poverty in Oregon," Thorndike said. "We're seeing different ideas come forth relative to making it possible for people to transition from lower-income jobs to higher-income jobs."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.