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Irrigation irritation in Eagle Point

Drip irrigators in the Eagle Point Irrigation District protest steep fee increases

A feud between drip and flood irrigators set against a backdrop of water thefts has cast a shadow over the Eagle Point Irrigation District.

Drip irrigators, most of them cannabis and hemp growers, have protested a proposed annual increase in fees of more than 500%, from $1,500 to $9,350 annually.

After drip irrigators complained, the district board backed off the steep hike recently, settling on an annual fee of $2,000 while it continues to study the issue.

The district insists its change of irrigation practice fee increase, which affects drip irrigators, is not an attack on legal pot grows.

“We don’t care what kind of grass you grow,” said Dave Ford, general manager of the district.

The district, which has 540 patrons and covers 8,260 acres near Eagle Point, has historically offered its water to flood irrigators, particularly cattle ranches and hay farmers.

Of those patrons, 41 have filed a change of irrigation practice application in 2021, representing 476 acres. This application and fee is required if a landowner wants to change from flood to drip irrigation.

Historically, a farmer floods a field, with some of the overflow sometimes draining into a neighboring farmer’s field.

For the past five years, pot growers have moved in, and they water with drip irrigation, which results in little to no water flowing onto a neighboring field.

As a result, the district has initiated a change of irrigation practice application to monitor the impact of drip irrigation on surrounding farmers.

At the same time, the district has wrestled with an ongoing problem of stealing water out of the irrigation ditch, often at night. This is particularly worrisome because of low creek flows during the prolonged drought.

Many drip irrigators and vegetable farmers, who also don’t like the water stealing, have been paying higher fees so far, but they came out in force at the recent board meeting to protest the latest hike.

“It really feels like discrimination,” said Jeanne Shiroma, who leases out two acres to a pot grow.

Shiroma said the fees, which must be paid every year by drip irrigators, have steadily increased over the past five years. She said the $2,000 fee was still too much.

She said even when the change of practice fee was $750 a couple of years ago it was excessive.

Shiroma said some irrigation districts have provided incentives to change over to drip irrigation to help conserve water, but the Eagle Point Irrigation District has placed a penalty on that change.

“It is a documented fact that flood irrigation is the least efficient, and drip the most efficient irrigation method,” Shiroma said.

She said the legitimate drip irrigation customers, who pay their fees to the district, are being penalized because of others who are stealing water.

Shiroma said drip irrigation uses less water, making more available for the flood irrigators.

“They get more water because drip is much more efficient,” she said.

District officials also noted that they’ve had difficulty collecting the fees from some of the drip irrigators.

Many of the old-time cattle ranchers and farmers told the board they supported raising fees on the drip irrigators.

The district, while claiming it doesn’t single out legal pot grows, nevertheless makes it clear that it prefers a time before cannabis became legal.

“Quite frankly we should revert back to flood irrigation,” said board President Gary Bedell.

He said the district has faced a $191,000 increase in costs over the past year, and the only change he’s seen is the increase in drip irrigators.

Bedell said the district has seen other costs increase as well, including labor and materials.

The district has also raised its per-acre rate by $17 to $68 to help offset increases.

Pressed by drip irrigators to explain a breakdown of the costs to justify the steep change of irrigation fee increase, Bedell said, “This is a nightmare to try and determine the costs.”

He said the drip irrigators have created a “hydrological imbalance” in the district that has disrupted the historical flow of water flooding across the various properties served by the district.

“It doesn’t matter to me what you grow, but the impact on the district is huge,” he said.

Some of the drip irrigators noted that they were at the end of the line for a particular canal, so they couldn’t see how the use of drip would create a problem.

They also didn’t want the fees to continue year after year.

Bedell assigned Bruce Beckett, a drip irrigator, to be on a committee to propose a fair way to raise rates and to possibly have a sunset clause so that a change of practice fee isn’t paid indefinitely.

The district has water rights on Big Butte Springs and has 18 miles of main canals and 165 of lateral canals.

An eight-person crew runs the district, which includes ditch riders, office workers and other maintenance personnel. The district is currently looking for a new ditch rider to monitor the canals.

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.