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Troubled ditch will be closely monitored

The Talent Irrigation District has a short-term fix planned for ensuring its 90-year-old McDonald Ditch won't fail and trigger a muddy landslide again while it seeks a 21st-century upgrade for this 19th-century infrastructure.

The district's board of directors has approved purchasing a $10,000 satellite-remote monitoring station on the ditch that directs water from the Little Applegate River watershed across Wagner Gap to TID's irrigators on upper Wagner Creek.

The station would immediately alert TID to water-flow changes in the ditch similar to what happened in April, when a madrone tree fell in the ditch and caused water to back up until the ditch failed, sending tons of mud into the Little Applegate system.

The station would not solve the long-term headaches of maintaining an earthen irrigation system cut into an unstable hillside that is prone to mud-producing slides which can violate the federal Clean Water Act and choke steelhead spawning beds.

"It won't stop the problem," TID Manager Jim Pendleton said. "At least it will let us know sooner that we have a problem."

TID also has applied for a $100,000 federal Bureau of Reclamation grant to be used toward piping of the four-mile ditch. The pipe would help solve the ditch-caused slides, but cost of the materials alone has been penciled out at $600,000, Pendleton said.

However, the pipe would not magically stabilize the loose and slide-prone slopes, nor would the federal money come in the next few irrigation seasons — if at all.

"I don't see us doing too much of that any time soon," Pendleton said.

Water-conservation groups wary of future use of the ditch continue to push TID toward a long-term solution that would lead to decommissioning of the ditch cut by Chinese laborers in 1920.

Lesley Adams from the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center would prefer to see the TID buy out the water rights from the handful of landowners who still rely on the ditch for their TID water.

Or, Adams said, she wants TID to pump water from the Bear Creek Valley to those upper Wagner Creek landowners through part of an ambitious $800 million plan to improve irrigation delivery systems valleywide.

That plan, drafted by a multi-agency group called Water for Irrigation, Streams and Economy — or WISE — has not been funded, but decommissioning the McDonald Ditch is high on its laundry list of priorities.

"I'm glad they're taking it seriously, but I'm weary of spending more on band-aids," Adams said. "It's important to look more at those (other solutions) before proceeding with a Band-Aid fix."

Steve Mason, an Ashland-based hydrologist working on WISE and other projects, said no solid numbers exist yet for piping water up Wagner Creek, but various alternatives likely would cost in the neighborhood of $5 million.

Then again, nothing comes easy when it comes to McDonald Ditch.

Turn-of-the-century landowners in the upper reaches of Wagner Creek had rights to draw water from that creek for irrigation, but they were junior rights to lower-elevation landowners with older, more senior rights. Those senior rights allowed them to draw all their allotted water before the upstream landowners could legally get a drop.

During dry years, landowners with junior rights received little or no water. So they eyed water just over Wagner Gap in the Little Applegate drainage and joined forces with the infant TID, which looked for a way to deliver that water from one drainage to the other.

Chinese laborers hand-carved a ditch through a series of Forest Service and private holdings to transfer about 15 cubic feet per second of water across the divide and into Wagner Creek, completing the task in 1920.

But the ditch traversed very steep hillsides whose decomposed granite soils had a history of failing and sliding in storms. Debris clogged and backed up in regular-enough fashion that TID employed a full-time ditch-walker there during the irrigation season to keep water flowing.

Over the decades, slides occurring above and below have breached the ditch, usually pushing mud through McDonald Creek and into the Little Applegate before reaching the Applegate River.

That's what happened in April when a slide muddied the Little Applegate during the peak spawning period for winter steelhead.

The blocked ditch went unnoticed until the muddy water turned up in the Little Applegate.

The Little Applegate is considered a key watershed for salmon recovery. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has identified 19 miles of steelhead spawning habitat there.

Debris and mud in the water can settle out and coat steelhead eggs, causing them to lose the ability to filter nutrients as they incubate.

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