Merkley tours the Jackson County pipeline construction project

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“It helps everyone by conserving water and making more water available throughout the irrigation district,” Merkley said while visiting Eagle Point.

The pipeline will be used by the Rogue River Valley Irrigation District and the Medford Irrigation District. It will improve the existing cement and earth system known as the Hopkins Canal which runs from Eagle Point to Little Butte Creek. The system supplies water to thousands of acres of farmland.

“This will be Jackson County’s largest irrigation infrastructure project,” said Paul DeMaggio of the Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District.

The purpose of the pipeline is to keep water from escaping from the aging canal system that hasn’t seen significant improvements since the 1950s, DeMaggio says. A pipeline, instead of an open channel, will also prevent evaporation and allow more water to be retained in the smaller tributaries of the Little Butte Creek watershed, which is home to chinook salmon, rainbow trout and the coho salmon, among the species of fish.

The Little Butte Creek basin “produces more of these fish than any other Upper Rogue tributary,” according to the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy.

“By making the channels more efficient, they can just divert a little less and leave more water in the stream for the fish, rather than diverting all of it and letting that water seep out of control” , DeMaggio said.

Paul DeMaggio with the Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District sits at the junction of the canals used by the Rogue River Valley Irrigation District and the Medford Irrigation District.

As a member of the Congressional Appropriations Committee, Merkley helped secure $5 million for this initial phase of pipeline funding. The total cost of upgrading the canal is expected to be $56.2 million.

“If we want to keep our agriculture strong, we need to use water more efficiently,” Merkley said. “These types of projects are essential to a climate change future where we anticipate that we will have far less water than we had in the past.”

Unlike millions of dollars in recent federal investments for western water supply projects, the Jackson County pipeline has been in the works for several years. After an initial feasibility and engineering phase, it will take several more years to be built during the winter months when the canal is kept dry.

According to members of the irrigation districts, additional benefits of a pipeline will include preventing flooding from channel breaks and increasing water pressure to allow farmers to use sprinklers, rather than less efficient flood irrigation. The pipeline system could also support micro-hydroelectric power generation.

The 13.6-mile pipeline will connect to an existing 3.5-mile pipeline created by the Rogue River Valley Irrigation District several years ago.

Much larger pipeline projects have already been built in arid central Oregon, DeMaggio says. With ongoing droughts, similar investments are beginning in southern Oregon.

“We’re kind of getting into the game now with these projects,” he said.

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