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High and dry patrons will get water for summer

More than 1,000 patrons without irrigation because of damage to the South Highline Canal last winter should see some relief soon.

On Wednesday, R&G Excavating began welding together 50-foot sections of polyethylene pipe, 5 feet in diameter, for the 850-foot-long section next to Sand Creek west of Grants Pass.

Grants Pass Irrigation District Manager Don Miller hesitated to pinpoint a day when water might be flowing, but the target is by the end of next week.

"It's as fast as they can weld it," Miller said.

Project Superintendent Del Bibler and engineering consultant Justin Gerlitz also targeted the end of next week for flowing water.

"We plan on working Friday and Saturday," Bibler said on Wednesday at the site.

The canal and creek were severely eroded by a December rainstorm that destroyed an aging concrete spill structure, creating a canyon 25 feet deep in places and 50 feet wide.

Since irrigation season began three weeks ago, water from the Highline has been diverted at least a mile toward Grants Pass from the repair work.

John Firth, a patron on Midway Avenue west of the repair job, was happy to hear he might get water soon.

"I have a small orchard, and I water the lawn and garden from the ditch," Firth said. "Everything is kind of drying up."

Without the ditch, he's been supplementing from his well. Oregon law allows irrigation of up to a half-acre of lawn and noncommercial garden from a well, without an exemption from the state.

"I'm doing what I have to do to keep stuff alive," said Firth, who pays $500 a year for irrigation.

Former GPID Manager Dan Shepard, who lives on Sand Creek Road, has weathered the drought reasonably well, although he's had to buy hay to feed 13 head of cattle to make the grass on his 10 acres last longer. His son Mitch supplements with a well to irrigate his nursery business.

Ranchers will lose some production, but Shepard said if the water returns as expected they should get a second cutting of hay.

At the repair site, Bibler said the pipe will be supported by 2,500 tons of rock hauled in by Robco.

"The biggest concern was the base, and getting good support for the pipe," Bibler said.

The upper 280 feet of pipe will be buried permanently, Bibler said. The remaining section, from the intersection with Sand Creek to where Sand Creek branches toward the river, will be pulled out after irrigation season to accommodate a restoration project for the creek, according to Bibler. The pipe will be re-used.

During irrigation season, Sand Creek will flow along under the pipe.

Before the work began, dozens of large trees had to be removed, adding to the dozens that were removed over the winter from the erosion.

The contract with R&G for the work is $315,700, and the materials are another $316,000, Gerlitz said.

Of that $631,700, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has indicated it would pay 75 percent because of a disaster declaration from the December storm.

GPID had to wade through requirements from the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, FEMA and other agencies to begin work on the project, which was also slowed because of wet weather in spring.

"The goal is to get everybody back in service for the hot months of summer," Gerlitz said. "Come fall, we'll shut it down and do a permanent solution, adjusting the location of the pipe and restoring the banks that are damaged."

Reach reporter Jeff Duewel at 541-474-3720 or jduewel@thedailycourier.com