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Canals of commerce

Without “the ditch,” as many call it, the Rogue Valley would not have had the irrigation water fed by manmade lakes in the mountains to slake the thirst of hundreds of orchards — and to lay the foundation for our valley to become the main commercial center of Southern Oregon.

The Roaring ’20s were the years when this complicated and expensive system of dams and ditches got engineered and were put in place, stabilizing orchards, ranching and just about everything agricultural — and it’s all still going today, providing the foundation for the new ag-industries of wine grapes and hemp.

Back in the day, settlers and their children found the valley had perfect weather and soil for growing just about anything outside the tropics, except for one big problem — most of the rain didn’t fall in the growing season. It fell as snow in the mountains, and that H2O needed to be stored for use in the hot, dry months of late summer.

In the late 1910s, a flock of irrigation districts formed in the Rogue Valley — and the key to the system was the canals of the Talent Irrigation District and the dams that created Hyatt Lake and Emigrant Lake to feed them.

These irrigation districts — Medford, Eagle Point, Talent and more — “brought sustained irrigation to the valley,” says TID Manager Jim Pendleton. “Natural rainfall just wasn’t sufficient to take care of all the fruit trees in the valley. What those old engineers built, it really made sustained agriculture happen in this area.”

In the beginning, during the 1850s, settlers could ranch with cattle and sheep, and grow wheat. The Billings family changed things in 1854, bringing the first precious pear tree seeds across the Plains and starting tiny orchards in the Valley View area of Ashland, according to talentid.org/district-history/.

With the completion of the north-south railway in 1887, global markets for Rogue Valley pears boomed, and you could make up to $700 an acre, a phenomenal amount in those years. This caused a local land and building bubble that popped in 1912.

To stabilize orchards, seven irrigation districts were formed at great expense between 1915 and 1921, with the biggest, TID, serving Ashland, Talent, Phoenix and south Medford. In the 1920s, Emigrant Dam (and lake) were created, with irrigation canals on both sides of the Bear Creek Valley going north as far as Phoenix.

Emigrant Dam was started in 1924, and to pay for construction of its facilities, TID sold three issues of bonds between 1919 and 1927 for $1.2 million.

The Rogue Valley pear industry gained fame throughout the country and in Europe. It peaked with 400 growers at the time of the giant stock market crash in November 1929. Many farmers went bankrupt in the Great Depression and had to sell or abandon orchards. Irrigation districts couldn’t pay bond holders and had to be bailed out by the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation. On top of financial woes, drought hit hard. All survived, anchored by the prosperous Harry & David Bear Creek Corporation, but everyone had to “run lean” for years, says Pendleton.

The Federal Reclamation Bureau joined in, and the focus expanded to hydropower generation. Recent decades have seen a fading of pear orchards and a boom in wine grapes and hemp production, but these, “surprisingly enough, are very water-efficient, not that thirsty, because they use drip irrigation,” says Pendleton.

Covering canals and piping the water can save much water (from evaporation), but it’s very expensive. In Ashland, property owners have resisted efforts to pipe the Ashland Canal for fear the loss of the ditch will hurt their property values.

Still, “we put as much as we can underground,” Pendleton notes.

It’s always a worry when winter rains don’t come — and now, “I’m not going to call it a drought, but snowpack is only 70 percent,” Pendleton said in late February.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

This 1924 photo shows the initial stages of the construction of the dam creating Emigrant Lake near Ashland. Creation of the lake submerged the tiny hamlet of Klamath Junction.