Questions about the fate and future of Central Oregon’s irrigation canals, from political to financial to deeply personal, swirl in eddies as swift and treacherous as the 3 feet or so of fast-moving Central Oregon Irrigation District water into which a 22-month-old Bend boy fell and drowned Tuesday evening.
The rare nature of the tragedy – one official said it’s been 20-plus years since a similar occurrence in Bend – is likely to do little to stem the intense emotions that ensue around such a death, especially on an issue that already has had emotions flaring for some time on the High Desert.
The main reason irrigation districts have been looking at turning open-air canals into buried pipelines is to preserve that precious quantity, water, needed for the area’s growing population, and also needed to restore skimpy middle Deschutes River flows during the heat of summer – at state insistence, for fish habitat and water quality issues.
No one denies that the canals made of porous volcanic rock leak more than half the river water before they reach farm or field. The question is what to do (or not do) about it, as many canal-side residents have come to treasure their gurgling (for part of the year, anyway) amenity.
But a side benefit to the water-saving potential of canal lining has always been about removing the potential liability and boosting the safety of neighbors and the public, as the once-rural areas around Bend become more and more populated.
Whatever details (and possible legal issues) emerge about supervision of the child, the timeframes involved, etc., the tragedy that befell little Jonathon Sanchez no doubt will heighten the emotions on all sides of the canal-piping issue. So will the continued effort by a group called Save Our Canals to have state officials place historic designation on the Swalley Irrigation canal, north of Bend, a move that Bend city officials are opposing, for a variety of reasons.
And one other thing is certain: With hundreds of miles of unfenced, open water, running by homes across the region the toddler’s drowning is an irrigation district manager’s worst nightmare, come to life. Steve Johnson, who has headed COID (www.coid.org) for just nine months, can attest to that.
Johnson said his agency was called shortly before 9 p.m. Tuesday by Deschutes County sheriff’s deputies about the possibility of cutting off the water flow, to aid the search effort. He said they acted as quickly as possible, but “it still took two hours for that flow to be reflected in the area that the search began. By then, it was 11:30, pretty late. There was limited visibility, and the water was still high.”
“We ferried and worked with the rescue teams up and down the canal last night, and agreed to come back at 5 a.m.,” Johnson said Wednesday. “As much as we had control of the situation, I’ve been evaluating mentally if we responded as well as we could. I felt satisfied that the staff” did just that.
The county’s Emergency Preparedness Network was pressed into service, quickly calling about 1,600 neighbors in a 1-mile radius, to advise about the missing child. Among those neighbors was Deschutes County District Attorney Mike Dugan.
“Everyone was out looking for the kid – my son was out looking,” Dugan said. “It’s terribly sad. When we moved to that area, my children were 2 and 4. We had concerns about that canal. As much of a conscientious father as I was, I know you can blink and turn around, and they’re gone.”
Piping canals pricey proposition; fencing problematic
One big reason more canals haven’t been piped and buried has been the cost. Johnson figures that for about five miles of the east-west Central Oregon Canal, that would cost about $15 million – and even more for the north-south Pilot Butte Canal, since it would need steel, rather than high-density polyethelene, due to the steeper grades and higher pressures involved.
So what about fencing? Some canal neighbors have taken that step, but many haven’t, and many of those would oppose such a move, Johnson said.
“The challenge with the fencing is that we don’t own the land,” he said. “We have easements where the canal is. It ends up being a private property issue.” A secondary issue is there can’t be fencing – at least, not without locked or electronic gates – at spots where COID staff need access for operation and maintenance work.
“Many people have (fenced), and the district certainly makes them aware of the known hazard when they decline to fence,” Johnson said.
Opponents of canal piping who have proposed the historic Swalley designation have been given some extra time, until July 12, to submit additional material for their application to the state Historic Planning Office, according to Roger Roper, preservation programs manager. That’s also the day Roper plans to visit Bend and meet separately with both the irrigation district board and the Save Our Canal members, to detail the process.
The State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation meets three times a year; its next meeting is in October, and the deadline was set for adequate time to review the application, Roper said.
Dwight Smith of Sisters, recently named vice chairman of that panel, also sits on the Deschutes County Historic Landmarks Commission. His reaction to the COID canal drowning was sympathetic, yet blunt.
“I have great sympathies to the loss of a child,” he said. “That’s always sad, anywhere. But it’s a totally different arena from the preservation of our key historic resources. It’s emotional and sad, and so forth. But shall we burn down all our historic resources because a child was improperly supervised? I think not. We live in a dangerous world, but please – protect your children.”
“Are open canals a hazard? No more than a street,” Smith said. “Parents need to take care of their kids.”
Smith, a retired leader of ODOT’s cultural resources team, said he’d not read the initial Swalley historic designation application but that he’s already aware that “Swalley Canal is historically very important, as are all the 1910s-1920s canals throughout the state, not just the Bend area. That’s what generated growth and prosperity.”
“If I get a National Register nomination on a linear resource on the Swalley Canal, I will vote in favor of it, because it’s historically important and meets the criteria for the National Register,” Smith added.
City says lining canals not answer
Roper said the state would like to see a middle-ground direction in which officials “preserve the integrity” of the canal but take steps so they don’t lose much water.
“There’s nothing about a National Register nomination that would freeze any improvement on the canal,” Roper said.
But if the option is lining canals, the criticism will be loud, especially at Bend City Hall.
“The people who have been advocating for canal lining don’t understand that it just makes it worse,” said Ron Garzini, interim city manager. They cite two factors: lining speeds the velocity of the already swift-running water, and can make it harder, if not impossible, for people (or animals) to clamber up the slippery slopes to safety, should they fall in.
“I think the only solution, over time, is piping,” Garzini said. He said COID has proposed piping portions of their system, through a recent request for proposals by Bend and Prineville. He said the idea is to “show the residual of piping can be attractive. We can create green belts,” and water features as well – ones that operate more than during just the irrigation season.
“As Bend grows more and more, it’ll be more and more risky to have open, unprotected, uncontained canals,” Garzini said. “It’s going to take a lot of money and take a lot of time, but it’s doable.”
A month ago, Bend city councilors formally weighed in as opposed to the Swalley Canal historic designation, and also urged that other factors, such as water conservation and safety, be factored into the decision.
But Roper said that’s not how it works: “Designation happens based on the historic merits of the canal, not on whether it’s safe or has water loss,” he said. “It’s whether it has state historic significance.”
City Councilor John Hummel said at the early-June meeting that he hoped every canal in Bend would be piped, as soon as funding was found.
“It’s good for safety. It’s good for the environment. It’s good for tourism,” Hummel said at the time.
Contacted Wednesday with the tragic news, Hummel said, “This isn’t a time for `I told you so,’ at all. But we’ve known about the problem for years. Dogs have fallen into canals. It was just a matter of time. In fact, in Madras, seven or eight years ago, a man was running along the canal, his dog fell in, he jumped in to save the dog, and they both perished. It’s an attractive nuisance, and they need to be piped.”