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Merkley visits Jackson County pipeline construction project

Jeff Merkley.jpg
Erik Neumann
Sen. Jeff Merkley visited the site of a new canal piping project in Jackson County.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley visited the site of a new water pipeline project in the works in Jackson County on Friday. The development of the 13.6-mile-long pipeline marks a significant investment in water-moving infrastructure in Southern Oregon that could benefit both farms and fish.

“It helps everyone by conserving water and making more water available throughout the irrigation district,” Merkley said, during his visit in Eagle Point.

The pipeline will be used by the Rogue River Valley Irrigation District and Medford Irrigation District. It will upgrade the existing cement and earthen system known as the Hopkins Canal that stretches from Eagle Point to Little Butte Creek. The system supplies water to thousands of acres of agricultural land.

“This will be the biggest irrigation infrastructure project in Jackson County,” said Paul DeMaggio with the Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District.

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

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

“By making the canals more efficient, they can just divert a little bit less and leave more water in-stream for fish, rather than diverting their full amount and letting that water seep out uncontrolled,” DeMaggio said.

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

As a member of the congressional appropriations committee, Merkley helped secure $5 million for this initial funding phase of the pipeline. The full cost to modernize the canal is expected to be $56.2 million.

“If we’re going to keep our agriculture strong, we have to use water more efficiently,” Merkley said. “These types of projects are essential to a future of climate change where we’re anticipating that we’re going to have a lot less water than we’ve had in the past.”

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

Additional benefits of a pipeline will include preventing flooding from breaks in the canal and increased water pressure to allow farmers to use sprinklers, rather than less efficient flood irrigation, according to members of the irrigation districts. The piped system could also potentially support micro-hydroelectric energy generation.

The 13.6-mile pipeline will tie into 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 starting in Southern Oregon.

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

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.