Sitting on pile of gold: water

<p>This automated head gate diverts water from the Lostine River into the Westside Ditch, measuring the water's volume in cubic feet per second increments.</p>

Whether as a source of liquid for human consumption or used as the life-giving essential to promote agriculture, the value of water in Wallowa County in financial terms is high.

And efforts are ongoing to gain more and more mileage out of what water is available.

Early settlers in the valley knew this from the time they arrived as witnessed by the fact that some water rights here extend as far back as the 1870s.

The City of Wallowa got on the bandwagon in 1906 when it was granted a water right by the Oregon State Water Board to take as much as 6 cubic feet per second of water out of Bear Creek. The legal description of Bear Creek in that original document listed Bear Creek as a tributary of the Wallowa River.

This gave the city legal access to a large amount of water at an early date.

The exact date the implementation of that water right became the official source of water for the City of Wallowa is buried in historical paperwork, but water from Bear Creek was the city’s source of water until 1983. In 1983, the city drilled a well that gave the city a new, possibly purer water source.

That well provides Wallowa with ample water to fill its needs today, and a plan to upgrade Wallowa’s water system with a second well and many other improvements is into the final stages of funding procurement.

And yet, the city still maintains water rights to 6 cubic feet per second of water out of Bear Creek.

Ron Gay, mayor of Wallowa 2006-2010, says about 3½ years ago during his tenure of office that he was contacted by the Grande Ronde Model Watershed, of La Grande, which was exploring the possibility of purchasing those Bear Creek water rights from the city.

Gay said the nonprofit’s intent behind the potential purchase of those rights was to explore the possibility of injecting that volume of water into the ground. The reasoning behind such a strategy, said Gay, would be – after the water resurfaced as the growing season progressed – to provide downstream water users with a longer irrigation season.

One water rights specialist out of Seattle placed the value of the City of Wallowa’s Bear Creek water right at that time at $500,000, Gay said.

The reason the potential purchase was not pursued, he added, was because water rights, once sold, are gone forever. Were Wallowa to sell its rights to that water, said Gay, any future new business interested in relocating to Wallowa that required much water would be precluded from such a move.

The City of Joseph, in an agreement with the Associated Ditch Company, pipes its water a short distance from the Wallowa River to that city’s water plant where it is purified into drinking water.

A major local water source in addition to Wallowa Lake begins at the Minam Lake Reservoir and heads downstream as the Lostine River. Water in the Minam Lake Reservoir is held in check by an earthen dam. That water is strategically released throughout the summer to maximize agricultural benefit from that source.

There are about seven major ditches that draw water off of the Lostine River and one of them is the Westside Ditch that provides water to 34 growers.

Westside Ditch president Leonard Post says water is measured out of the Lostine River on a cubic-foot-per-second basis, but from that point on the growers mostly irrigate on an “honor system.” He says known past history dictates in large part how much water each grower needs and receives.

Post makes a personal observation that flood irrigators consume more water than pipe or wheel irrigators.

Longtime program director for the Wallowa Soil and Water Conservation District Cynthia Warnock says there are numerous small ditches throughout Wallowa County. She says, “Some of the owners of those ditches hold annual meetings and other ditches just exist.”

One important service offered by the Wallowa SWCD is to act as a middleman between local growers and government funding sources such as the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and the United States Department of Agriculture.

Warnock says farmers and ranchers come to her with proposed plans to save water and reduce electrical costs, and her job is to develop those plans and locate funding sources.

Although Warnock recently has worked with many smaller water improvement plans, she says during the past two years the four largest projects have been funded to a total of about $1.2 million. All four have been in the Upper Prairie Creek area and included the installation of underground pipe to provide a constant source of pressure to pumps providing water to existing wheel lines – all with the intent of using less water and less electricity.

Warnock said the largest of those projects involves six landowners, is still under way, cost in the vicinity of $500,000, and includes the installation of about 1,200 feet of underground pipe.

Although pipe installation certainly is not the answer in all situations, Warnock says, one byproduct of such projects is the elimination of some smaller irrigation ditches.

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