Property values vs. water conservation

Residents seek historic designation for irrigation canal

(This article appeared in the Capital Press, Page 1, 6.August 2004)

Freelance Writer

TUMALO, Ore. – Adding the Swalley Canal to the National Register of Historic Places could shut down future efforts to pipe the irrigation ditch, or not. It all depends on how the Deschutes County Historical Landmarks Commission chooses to enforce local rules regarding such sites.

For now, the question is hypothetical: The original application for historic status was recently rejected by the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office as incomplete, and proponents expect that an application will take some time to complete. If a complete application is filed in November, the earliest a historic designation could be expected would be in the spring of 2005.

That’s not to say that users of Swalley water and property owners along the canal aren’t worked up by the hypothetical prospect of a designation usually reserved for historic buildings being applied to five-mile trench that has brought life from the Deschutes River to the high desert for more than a century. In a meeting held July 12 by the Swalley Irrigation District board, chairman Andy Tillman banged his gavel a half-dozen times to bring order to a contentious meeting.

In short, the strain comes between two groups of people: those who want the canal piped in order to save water, and those who want the canal to remain open – as it has been since it was first dug and dynamited out of the lava more than a century ago. The city of Bend is offering as much as $7 million for a contractr to pipe the canal, which leaks about half of its water into the lava rock. The conserved water would then be targeted for municipal use in the fast-growing region. Controversy over the proposal was a major factor in the ouster of the irrigation district’s board of directors in late 2001, and a lawsuit by the organization WaterWatch over the formula for water exchanges has kept the idea up in the air ever since.

For core supporters of historic preservation, it’s largely a matter of property values and aesthetics. The open canal looks nice, and creates summer oases in the yards of homes that would disappear with piping. Many wells that draw on seepage from the canal could dry up.

“I just feel like I have my property rights and I’m interested in the history of the canal,” said Gary DeJarnatt, who lives on the canal and owns a half-acre of irrigation rights.

On another side are those who believe their water rights – not always accompanied by canal-front property – are threatened by the prospect of a designation that could prevent water conservation measures intended to ward off legal actions such as those that forced irrigation districts in Walla Walla and Methow, Wash., to stop leaks from canals.

They’re also concerned about how historic designation could increase the cost of water and even threaten their water rights. Even though Swalley owns the second-oldest water rights in the Deschutes Basin behind the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, some fear that an already convoluted maze of population growth, changes in water law and the hopes of the city of Bend will be further complicated by a possible historic designation.

“My concern is that when all this gets done, how does it affect my water right – lined, piped or otherwise?” asked Frank Ryan, who has water rights but doesn’t live on the canal.

Those questions may not be answered until after the historic status is granted. While an application has been delayed until November, state officials say a complete filing and consent of a majority of property owners on the canal would likely lead to the ditch being added to the register.

“Our hunch is that it probably is significant from a historic standpoint,” said Roger Roper, manager of the State History Preservation Office. “It’s one of the oldest active irrigation canals in the state.”

The fact that only property owners have a say in the matter drew some anger from the crowd of 60 at the meeting. The canal itself has a permanent, deeded easement through private property; while the irrigation district owns some of the structures that are part of the canal, it is not a landowner. Roper said that many of those who own water rights, no matter how vast, would not have any say in a historic designation. Further, to oppose the designation, property owners must formally register their opposition; failing to do so would count as a “yes” vote. About 250 people live on the five miles of canal being considered for historic status. Size of properties does not weigh in the voting.

Neither Roper nor federal authorities could put any restrictions on use of the canal, but local officials might. Within local historic districts in Deschutes County, there are restrictions on what can be done with the exterior of structures, and a plan by property owners to demolish a large crane shed in Bend has been held up by the county landmarks commission four times since this spring.

Roper suggested that the irrigation district, water rights holders and property owners start working now to craft a compromise management plan to ease any future conflicts.

“We’d be happy to advise you,” Roper said. “You could choose to do some selective preservation vs. some improvements,” suggesting it might be possible to save an open section of canal for posterity, but route a pipe around it. “There is no model I can pull out of my back pocket,” Roper said. “It just hasn’t been done very much.”