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Pipe dream becomes reality

ASHLAND — Crews are about to begin construction that will modernize a nearly one-mile stretch of Talent Irrigation District's canal in the upper reaches of the Bear Creek Basin to improve water efficiency and make the basin more salmon-friendly.

Next month they will replace an old, leaky and open-air canal diverting Bear Creek water with an underground pipe that will save about 3 cubic feet per second of water that the old canal lost in summer to seepage and evaporation.

That roughly equals the amount of water TID drew occasionally from Ashland Creek at a diversion about two-thirds of a mile from its confluence with Bear Creek, according to the federal Bureau of Reclamation. That withdrawal was accomplished via a diversion deemed a wild fish-passage impediment to threatened wild coho salmon and was removed from the creek last year.

The first 2,200 feet of the 60-inch diameter pipe is expected to be laid and buried in the current canal stretch from the Oak Street diversion north, according to TID.

Pilot Rock Excavation of Medford this past week has been stacking and staging large swaths of the piping near the Oak Street and Eagle Mill Road intersection, prepping for the work.

Once the full 4,600 feet of canal is piped, the water saved for TID from Bear Creek will make up for walking away from Ashland Creek, which experts say will help improve the bureau's fish-passage requirements in the Bear Creek Basin.

"It will be just about a bucket exchange for what we would have gotten from Ashland Creek," TID Manager Jim Pendleton says. 

State fish biologists say removing that diversion not only makes Ashland Creek more accessible to wild spawning salmon but also allows juvenile salmon and steelhead easier access to Ashland Creek's cool summer flows when Bear Creek gets too hot for their liking.

Ashland Creek is considered one of the few cold-water summer refugias left in the Bear Creek Basin, where the state Department of Environmental Quality has classified Bear Creek as too hot for wild juvenile salmon and steelhead in summer. 

"There's no question in my mind that's a huge benefit, getting that dam out," says Dan VanDyke, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District fish biologist. "That will improve passage for coho, summer steelhead, winter steelhead and juvenile fish. That's a real win."

The work is funded through a nearly $1 million bureau grant.

The Ashland Creek diversion was removed after it was identified as a wild salmon impediment in NOAA-Fisheries' 2012 biological opinion that outlines ways to reduce impacts to wild coho and their habitat to keep the three basin irrigation districts legally operating under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The bureau could have notched the Ashland Creek diversion and created a fish ladder to address a relatively small amount of water, says Douglas DeFlitch, manager of the bureau's Bend office.

That led to the possibility of creating a larger conservation project, which led to the piping alternative, DeFlitch says.

Pendleton says that, once this year's piping work is done, TID will seek more bureau grants to finish the job, which likely would cost another $1 million. Pendleton says he would like to finish the job between the 2017 and 2018 irrigation seasons, "but I don't know if we'll be done that quickly."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Talent Irrigation District is preparing to pipe 4,600 feet of its canal on Eagle Mill Road near Oak Street in Ashland. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta