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WISE project offers many benefits

It's been talked about for years, and today in Portland, business, industry and government leaders are set to talk about it some more: A major upgrade of the irrigation systems in Southern Oregon. This time, maybe all the talk will lead to some action.

There are many reasons to find a way to complete what's known as the WISE project — Water for Irrigators, Streams and Economy — and all of them are compelling:

  • Irrigation in this valley has traditionally relied on open canals and ditches, some lined, some not, and all subject to evaporation and leakage. Converting those canals and ditches to a system of pipes would save 30 percent of the water now wasted on the way from the source to the farmer.
  • Another drawback of open canals is pollution from fertilizers, pesticides and other runoff  from farm fields and pastures. Piping the system would protect the water supply from contamination.
  • If climate change is of concern — and it ought to be — preparing to compensate for its effects so agriculture remains a viable industry here only makes sense, and saving 30 percent of the water now being used becomes a necessity.
  • Constructing the system will provide jobs requiring less specialized training than the proposed gas pipeline. And, while the gas pipeline creates concerns about environmental impacts, an irrigation system upgrade would actually improve the environment by allowing more water to be left in streams and reducing contamination from runoff. 
  • As Ron Fox, executive director of Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc., noted, the future of agriculture in this valley is the production of produce and row crops, which require more frequent water deliveries than are possible with the rotation schedule of flood irrigation.

The Oregon Business Plan was a major backer of the Columbia River Crossing project to replace the Interstate 5 bridge connecting Oregon and Washington, but the deal fell through and the bottleneck created by the outdated span remains. That problem still needs to be solved.

But meanwhile, the WISE project can be done for a fraction of the cost. It's still a lot of money — $300 million to $400 million — and there is plenty of competition for that kind of funding.

That's why today's meeting is important: to get the attention of those who can help make the WISE project a reality. Local government leaders should be prepared to advocate for it as well.