The Many Benefits of Oregon’s Irrigation Modernization Initiative

Energy Trust of Oregon, working with the nonprofit Farmers Conservation Alliance (FCA), has developed a coordinated and comprehensive program to help irrigation districts and the farmers they serve to develop modern irrigation systems. The resulting systems will reduce energy use and operating costs; generate income from renewable energy production; increase agricultural production, quality, and diversity; reduce water use; and enhance environmental conditions. Twelve Oregon irrigation districts are currently undertaking assessments of the benefits they could achieve through modernization. This program reduces the cost and time required for project planning and implementation, addresses key regulatory and institutional barriers, leverages funding, and demonstrates how modern agricultural water management can mitigate the impacts of long-term drought.

The Need for Modernization

Oregon has more than 6,500 farms covering over 1,200 square miles of land. These farms typically receive irrigation water delivered via open canals owned by irrigation districts. The canals transport more than 480 billion gallons of water annually, but the aging, open systems are deteriorating; many are over 100 years old and are inherently inefficient. Because of seepage and evaporation, 20 to 50 percent of the water in a canal never makes it to a farm. Modernization is desperately needed. Modernizing an irrigation system starts by replacing open canals with pipes, conserving the water previously lost to seepage and evaporation. Gravity pressurizes the water delivered through the pipes, allowing irrigators to remove water pumps, thereby saving energy and related costs. In places where there is excess water pressure in the delivery system, electricity generation from hydropower can be produced. However, the expense of modernization, limited public awareness, and a lack of entities to coordinate modern infrastructure development meant that only three of Oregon’s approximately 200 irrigation districts had modernized before the start of the Energy Trust program.

Developing a Coordinated Approach

Over the past decade, Energy Trust engaged with a few irrigation districts on hydropower projects, most notably as a major funder of a 700-kilowatt hydropower turbine for the Three Sisters Irrigation District. That turbine, which produces 3.1 million kilowatt-hours annually, has helped defray the costs of an ambitious modernization program that piped 50 miles of the district’s 63 miles of canals. Among the many results of modernization, pressurized water is now delivered to 75 farms, allowing irrigation pumps to be removed, saving five million kilowatt-hours annually. In addition, 9,000 gallons of water per minute remains in Whychus Creek, the district’s water source, to benefit steelhead listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Through work with Three Sisters and other districts, Energy Trust recognized an opportunity. If more districts were able to move forward with modernization, Energy Trust could support more hydropower projects generating clean energy. In turn, financial support from Energy Trust would allow more parts of the state to achieve the many interrelated benefits of modernization. To tackle the planning associated with a coordinated, comprehensive approach, Energy Trust contracted with FCA, whose mission is to develop resource solutions for rural communities. With funding and staff support from Energy Trust, FCA created a methodology for developing individual irrigation district modernization strategies and built a large coalition of public and private sector partners. By the end of 2015, less than a year after starting, the program had signed up participation by 12 irrigation districts, including all eight districts in the Deschutes River Basin, one of Oregon’s most heavily irrigated areas.

Assessments of specific modernization benefits are now underway in all 12 districts. When completed by the end of 2016, the assessments will identify renewable energy, energy efficiency, agricultural, water, environmental, and economic benefits associated with modernization and lay out implementation options. After a district’s board selects a preferred approach, permitting and financing for projects will begin, followed by contracting and construction.

Benefits and Costs

The benefits associated with the initial 12 irrigation districts are expected to be 10-20 times greater than those seen at Three Sisters, and they will include installation of up to 10 megawatts of hydropower. Energy Trust is investing over $600,000 to help FCA design, build, and implement the program. Energy Trust has also committed to spend $1.3 million on the assessments at the 12 irrigation districts. That funding is more than matched by $1.8 million from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Oregon Water Resources Department, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Freshwater Trust, the Nez Perce Tribe, the irrigation districts themselves, and other watershed partners. As more irrigation districts participate in the program, Energy Trust expects to commit up to $200,000 per irrigation district for assessment studies. Additional funds will help the districts move into project implementation.

Spreading the Approach

Energy Trust and FCA designed the Irrigation Modernization Program with replicability in mind, because other states in the water-constrained western U.S. also have need for irrigation modernization. The Oregon program is producing open-source tools, methodologies, and process guides for irrigation districts and other organizations involved in modernization planning and implementation. Among the many resources that Energy Trust and FCA are making available are a model and template for creating a modernization plan at an irrigation district; tools for evaluating irrigation district organizational capacity, as well as for assessing economic, energy, water-saving, and agricultural benefits; a guide for developing hydroelectric capacity within an irrigation system; and guides for community and stakeholder outreach.


  • Replacing open canals with pipes saves water and reduces the need for farms to use energy to pump water. It also creates opportunities for new hydropower projects.
  • Twelve Oregon irrigation districts are currently undertaking assessments identifying the renewable energy, energy efficiency, agricultural, water, environmental, and economic benefits associated with modernization and characterizing project implementation approaches.
  • The program is producing tools, methodologies, and process guides that can be used by irrigation districts and other organizations across the western U.S.

Oregon’s Irrigation Modernization Program was a recipient of a 2016 “State Leadership in Clean Energy Award,” presented by the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA).

CESA hosted a webinar highlighting Oregon’s Irrigation Modernization Program on July 19, 2016.

This blog post was also published in Renewable Energy World.

Published On

July 12, 2016


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