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'Better for people and fish'

ASHLAND — Bear Creek's wild coho salmon will get more water without siphoning it away from irrigators under a $1 million grant that will help jump-start what could become a massive restructuring of irrigation deliveries in the Bear Creek Basin.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation has awarded $1 million to the Talent Irrigation District for a piping project billed as not only helping wild salmon in Ashland and Bear creeks but also demonstrating how the so-called WISE Project can help salmon and irrigators better co-exist.

"It makes it better for people and fish all the way around," TID Manager Jim Pendleton said.

The grant was announced jointly Tuesday by Oregon's U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both Democrats.

It offers money to buy materials, including piping, but not enough to cover the actual construction, Pendleton said. TID has a $1 million grant proposal pending before the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board to cover contractor costs, he said.

OWEB was set to vote on that grant in April, he said.

Under the project, TID will remove its Ashland Creek diversion, where the district captures up to 3 cubic feet per second of water during the irrigation season. It is one of several diversions that feed TID and is similar to others that supply Bear Creek Basin water to the Medford and Rogue River Valley irrigation districts.

That water would instead remain in Ashland Creek, improving fish passage and habitat there. It would also help TID meet its federally required minimum flows in Bear Creek for wild coho, which are protected as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The diversion is about one-eighth of a mile from Ashland Creek's confluence with Bear Creek.

The plan is then to install a 60-inch diameter pipe along the upper mile of the TID canal that runs from the Oak Street bridge north along Eagle Mill Road.

The savings from evaporation and seepage was expected to equal the amount of water TID will no longer divert from Ashland Creek.

"We figured out it's just about a wash," Pendleton said.

When completed, it will allow the irrigation districts to meet federally required minimum flows in Bear Creek with no net loss of irrigation water.

It's a small snapshot in a collage of future projects envisioned by WISE, which stands for Water for Irrigation, Streams and the Economy. It is a collaborative effort among local stakeholders ranging from farmers and ranchers to water- and fish-conservation interests and myriad governmental agencies.

"It's what we're looking to do with WISE — conserve water, get out of the streams and make up that water by being more efficient," said WISE's Steve Mason, an Ashland-based hydrologist. "It's really good news."

The minimum flows were set out in 2012's biological opinion by NOAA-Fisheries detailing how the irrigation districts should operate without illegally harming threatened wild coho. That report also calls for specific improvements to in-stream habitat, making some diversions more fish-friendly, and controlling how abruptly some stream flows are altered for irrigation needs.

Biologists consider low and unreliable stream flows and a lack of complex in-stream habitat as major limiting factors in coho survival within the Bear Creek Basin.

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

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is granting the Talent Irrigation District $1 million toward piping the irrigation ditch along Eagle Mill Road in Ashland. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell