Movement Seeks to Bring Back
by John O'Connell
Chris Colson champions an admittedly antiquated and inefficient method of watering crops -- flood irrigation.
The Boise-based regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited is part of a movement that recognizes the wildlife and water-supply benefits of flood irrigation, and the need to make certain it continues to be used in floodplains and other strategic locations across the West.
Ironically, his efforts to preserve flood irrigation often tap the same federal dollars that help farmers install high-efficiency pivots, which threaten to render flood irrigation obsolete.
The attraction for Colson and others is that flood irrigation, with its leaky canals and standing water, helps recharge shrinking aquifers and provides migratory birds with a stopover on their annual pilgrimages between the Arctic and points south.
Unlikely partnerships of agricultural landowners, conservationists, government officials and water managers are behind efforts to keep farmers flooding fields in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and California. During the past year, Colson estimates the movement has maintained flood irrigation on roughly 4,000 acres across the West.
“For 15 or 20 years or more, the conservation community has been telling people how wasteful flood irrigation is and convert to sprinkler,” Colson said.
Farmers have relied on flood irrigation -- using gravity to spread surface water across fields -- for thousands of years.
Since the late 1960s, however, growers have been moving away from flooding in favor of more efficient sprinklers. On average, 120,000 acres in 11 Western states were converted from flood irrigation to sprinklers annually between 1995 to 2010, according to a study of U.S. Geological Survey water-use data.
Conservation funding sources, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program under the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, have long supported sprinkler conversions with water-efficiency grants.
But the pursuit of efficiency has had unintended consequences. Migratory wading birds feed in flood-irrigated fields, which have provided an artificial alternative to the natural marshes lost to river damming. And Western aquifer levels have dropped in correlation with the disappearance of flood irrigation -- historically a major source of incidental aquifer recharge.
In Idaho’s Eastern Snake Plain, for example, officials say the aquifer has been dropping by 200,000 acre-feet per year on average, due to increased groundwater use and reduced flood irrigation.
Zola Ryan, NRCS district conservationist in Harney County, Ore., says her agency’s goals of improving irrigation efficiency and preserving flood irrigation needn’t be at odds.
Ryan explained efficient sprinklers are ideal for irrigators using groundwater, and watering where benefits of flooding aren’t as pronounced.
“There is a place and time for flood irrigation and a place and time for sprinkler irrigation,” Ryan said.
Colson and his colleagues have been working to understand -- and ultimately address -- the reasons growers opt to stop flood irrigating.
Often, the problem is the cost of replacing dilapidated head gates or improving canals. Some producers say flood irrigation is simply too labor intensive.
“We’re working with some vendors to develop automated infrastructure, where they can sit in their truck and use their cell phone and open the valves (to flood irrigate),” Colson said.
In Eastern Oregon, Ryan explained many growers quit flood irrigating in the early 1980s, after widespread flooding damaged canals. New wells and sprinklers are becoming increasingly common, she said.
However, NRCS has since 2014 set aside $300,000 a year for a special EQIP program to preserve flood irrigation for benefits to migratory birds in Oregon’s Harney and Lake counties. A half-dozen projects are in the planning stages, Ryan said.
Lake County rancher Joe Villagrana will finish NRCS-funded improvements to retain flood-irrigation later this month. But he’s been working with partners to upgrade his flood-irrigation infrastructure for most of a decade, initially with help from Ducks Unlimited. Villagrana said he’ll soon have the ability to evenly flood irrigate 2,200 acres of meadow grass pasture, and both grass production and water fowl numbers have already risen dramatically on his land.
Without the help, “I probably wouldn’t have done near what I’ve done, and I would have done it over 20 years,” Villagrana said.
In Northern California, Ducks Unlimited regional biologist John Ranlett has tapped U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funds to help several ranches install pipelines to better deliver water for flood irrigation. Ranlett has also overseen the replacements of weirs -- shallow dams across rivers that regulate water levels entering flood-irrigation canals.
“If their infrastructure starts to fail, they’re going to lose the ability to irrigate,” Ranlett said. “Then all of a sudden you lose habitat.”
A couple of years ago, Tim Brockish considered installing an irrigation pivot that would replace failing flood-irrigation infrastructure serving a 40-acre field he owns near Rexburg, Idaho.
Then he learned about the plight of the white-faced ibis -- a migratory wading bird known as a “marker bird” by people in the Rexburg area, as its presence marks flood-irrigated fields.
Brockish explained that one of the world’s largest ibis breeding colonies utilizes nearby Mud Lake and Market Lake, and the birds forage in flooded fields by day. The supply of flooded fields, however, is running thin, causing problems for the ibis and other migratory birds in one of the continent’s most critical “staging areas.”
More than a decade ago, experts discovered migratory birds were stopping for a few weeks along the Snake Plain in Idaho and in Eastern Oregon, Eastern Washington and Northern California to feed on insects and grass seed from flood-irrigated fields before heading north to breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. Malnourished birds often won’t breed.
Ultimately, Brockish chose wildlife over improved irrigation efficiency, partnering with the Teton Regional Land Trust to upgrade his flood system. He obtained a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant to replace metal head gates, rebuild canals and build a dike to hold flood-irrigation water longer on the field,
Sal Palazzolo, private lands program manager at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said preserving the staging area is a goal of both his agency and Ducks Unlimited, which have a plan to help water fowl by working with the state’s managed aquifer recharge program. Managed recharge involves intentionally injecting surface water into the aquifer to rebuild groundwater levels.
IDFG and Ducks Unlimited have asked the Idaho Department of Water Resources to design its recharge sites to be more like marshes, spilling shallow water over hundreds of acres rather than deep water over a smaller area.
“We’re definitely looking into that,” said Wes Hipke, IDWR’s recharge coordinator, who also sees the potential to combine resources with wildlife organizations on future recharge efforts. “It’s going to have to be on a case-by-case basis.”
IDWR has also agreed to study the potential for a managed aquifer recharge site at the Market Lake Wildlife Management Area.
Palazzolo said efforts are underway to establish a separate EQIP fund in Idaho for flood irrigation projects, and NRCS is mulling an Eastern Idaho water grant under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program that would cover flood-irrigation infrastructure.
Teton Valley experiment
Like many producers in his area, Teton County Farm Bureau Federation President Stephen Bagley stopped flood irrigating his ranch in the southern end of Idaho’s Teton Valley during the 1960s.
Now, Bagley is a leader of a coalition working to restore flood irrigation to the valley as a means of resolving a water shortfall that’s becoming increasingly critical.
Groundwater levels have dropped 55 feet in the valley since the 1970s -- before flood irrigation was phased out in favor of sprinklers and neighborhoods sprang up on farmland. Miles of unlined canals went unused that had previously recharged the aquifer with water losses exceeding 40 percent.
As a result, surface irrigation rights that once remained in priority through late July have lately been shut off at the beginning of the month.
In December of 2015 irrigators hoping to improve their own water outlook partnered with Farm Bureau, local cities and counties, Friends of the Teton River, Teton County Soil and Water Conservation District, Water District 1, the Henry’s Fork Foundation and others to form the Teton Water Users Association.
The association is pursuing funds to rebuild flood-irrigation infrastructure, which irrigators will use to flood pastures within their existing water rights during peak spring flows. When flows subside, they’ll resume using only efficient sprinklers. The water they bank through canals and flood irrigation should emerge from springs about three months later, when it’s needed most, extending the irrigation season, cooling the river for native Yellowstone cutthroat trout and replenishing dried marshes.
“Hopefully, I’ll have another week or two of irrigation because they won’t have to call for my water as fast,” Bagley said.
Driggs, Idaho, grower Wyatt Penfold said operating margins are razor thin in the valley, and saving a couple weeks of costly storage water from reservoirs would be a huge benefit.
“The only way to keep the lifestyle we’re all used to is to work together,” Penfold said.
Rob Van Kirk, senior scientist with the Henry’s Fork Foundation, has modeled the Teton Valley hydrology, calculating the association must increase annual aquifer recharge by 30,000 acre-feet to meet its goal of restoring water levels to 1975 conditions. The association will soon conduct an assessment of priority sites on which to restore flood irrigation.
Sarah Lien, an attorney for Friends of the Teton River, said the program’s ultimate goal is to apply about 260 cubic feet per second of water from April 15 through June 15.
“If we’re successful, we’re talking about 40 cfs increases in the Teton River,” Lien said. “It’s really new water.”
The project has been awarded a $50,000 U.S. Bureau of Reclamation WaterSMART grant to cover preliminary planning. They also have a pending $250,000 grant application with the Idaho Water Resource Board, which would provide matching funds to tap additional federal grants.
“The surface water every year is gone sooner and we’re more reliant on groundwater,” said Driggs, Idaho, Mayor Hyrum Johnson, who considers the association to be a template for other Western water users to follow. “I believe this organization is a great example of the way that water rights can be managed proactively around the state.”
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