Construction of Pilot Butte Canal in 1904 (Image courtesy<br />
Deschutes Historical Society.)

Historic Pilot Butte Canal Threatened by Hydroelectric Project

Completed Pilot Butte Canal in 1907 (Image courtesy Deschutes Historical Society.)

Completed Pilot Butte Canal in 1907 (Image courtesy
Deschutes Historical Society.)

For over a century, Central Oregon has been graced with open canals lacing across high desert landscapes. Historically the canals were the linchpin that encouraged and fostered settlement of Bend and Redmond. Over time they have become a rich and diverse habitat for plants, birds, and animals. Despite their historic, aesthetic, and ecological significance, the over 700 mile canal system is today under serious threat of being piped in its entirety.

When one of Bend’s founding fathers, Alexander Drake, arrived in Central Oregon around 1900 he quickly saw the potential for an irrigation canal system using water from the Deschutes River to enable agricultural development in the region. He founded a company, Pilot Butte Development Company, drew up plans for the system and with the help of the man who would become Bend’s first mayor, Arthur Goodwillie, secured funding for the project. Beginning in 1902, with the cooperation and hard work of the community, they carved the first gravity-fed canal system into the desert landscape using only black powder, horse-drawn and hand tools.

Construction of Pilot Butte Canal in 1904 (Image courtesy Deschutes Historical Society.)

Construction of Pilot Butte Canal in 1904 (Image courtesy
Deschutes Historical Society.)

In 1905 the City of Bend was incorporated at the nexus of the Deschutes River and Drake’s canal intake. Communities such as Powell Butte (1909), Redmond (1910), and Terrebonne (1910) were subsequently founded because of access to water that the growing canal system could provide. All told, 700 miles of canals were built to allow the settlement of Central Oregon during the first decades of the 20th century. Today, the canal system still largely functions as Drake envisioned, supplying irrigation water throughout Central Oregon.

Beginning in the early 1990s the local irrigation districts began modifying, through lining and piping projects, significant reaches of all of the canals. The oldest remaining canal, Drake’s 1904 Pilot Butte Canal, stretches from Bend to the Crooked River and is maintained and operated by Central Oregon Irrigation District. In 2009, a 2.5-mile section of Pilot Butte Canal north of Bend was piped to reduce water leakage and create hydroelectric power. The Irrigation District is proposing an additional two miles of the canal which runs through neighborhoods on the north side of Bend. Of the entire 700 mile canal system, the section proposed for piping is arguably the most historically significant in all of Central Oregon.

The Pilot Butte Canal today (image courtesy Pilot Butte Canal Preservation Alliance)

A local citizen group, the Pilot Butte Canal Preservation Alliance, was formed this spring to help redirect efforts to pipe this unique section of Pilot Butte Canal. Because the segment proposed for piping winds through a residential neighborhood where the canal’s historical integrity—signs of the original hand-tool construction—remain evident in its basalt bed, in recent months local property owners have rallied against the Central Oregon Irrigation District at public hearings. Despite the rapid planning process, the Pilot Butte Canal Preservation Alliance believes that “preservation is still possible.”

The Pilot Butte Canal today

The Pilot Butte Canal today

In April, affected property owners attempted to nominate the one-mile section of Pilot Butte Canal as both a City and County Landmark. In 1994, a number of canals were recognized as eligible for historic designation—including Pilot Butte—though they were never formally designated. Because of Central Oregon Irrigation’s District’s objection to designation, neither the City nor the County would accept the nominations for consideration.

In the Bend Area General Plan, the section of Pilot Butte Canal was identified for preservation for aesthetic and recreational purposes, such as a hiking and biking trail along its banks. Recently, LUBA and the Deschutes County Planning Commission issued findings against the proposed piping project, but the issue now lies in front of the Board of County Commissioners. The Pilot Butte Canal Preservation Alliance is committed to finding a solution that keeps the canal open for generations to come.

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11 Responses to Historic Pilot Butte Canal Threatened by Hydroelectric Project

  1. Joette Storm September 28, 2014 at 12:40 pm #

    Central Oregon has an interesting history. Your coverage of the canal is informative and shows that there is historic importance of the open water canals. The Chair of the County Planning Commission said COID
    has plenty of rural sections of the canal it can pipe. He sees no reason to pipe the section in a zone where such uses are restricted intentionally.

    • Karen Jones September 30, 2014 at 11:02 am #

      Thank you, Joette, for drawing attention to the Commissioner’s remarks: there are INTENTIONAL legal restrictions on piping in historical or residential areas. Citizens deserve to be educated on the long-term consequences of removing the legislative restrictions on piping. In effect, Central Oregon Irrigation, a municipal corporation, is asking the Deschutes County Board of Commissioners to CHANGE existing law in order to reach their own business objectives — at the expense of one of Central Oregon’s highly regarded historic assets. Likewise, piping the canal would severely damage an ecosystem that originated over a century ago when the canal was created to promote agriculture in the high desert. Altering an age-old habitat would permanently disrupt the wellbeing of native plants and animals. Finally, as COID has pointed out, their engineers will need to excavate within this ecosystem to bury their 9-foot pipe — a concept which their management trumpets as a “sincere effort at compromise/collaboration with the resident landowners.”

  2. Tom Hignell MD September 26, 2014 at 1:06 pm #

    Gentle People,

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support. It is a big relief knowing you are in our camp standing with us against this corporate bully. Brandon has asked for a tour of the canal and I”d be happy to grant his wish when he gets back. Please have him call me. Thank you, Tom

  3. Stacy Pell September 24, 2014 at 1:13 pm #

    Thank you for the great article! I appreciate your sharing information about this Central Oregon treasure – its rich, natural ecosystem and its history. As a new resident of the Pilot Butte Canal neighborhood, I feel grateful to be living with such a unique and beautiful resource “in my backyard”. It truly is a defining feature of our area. I hope that through continuing to raise awareness about this issue, others can understand the importance of preserving such unique places!

  4. MattyG September 24, 2014 at 9:43 am #

    Thanks for raising this issue with more people. In my mind, COID has NO right to pipe canal on private property for hydroelectric power, and they know it. That’s why they are trying to CHANGE THE LAW to allow their project to go forward. If it does, we will not only lose this historic part of Central Oregon, but many people will lose a valuable part of their property so that a municipal corporation (COID) can profit from a hydroelectricity project that would be illegal under current land use laws.

    Please help by stating your desire to the Deschutes County Commissioners to keep this stretch of canal in it’s current, historic state.

    • Beth Merrick November 2, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

      Wildlife, history and neighborhood houses with intact foundations rather than corporate profits!

  5. Tex and Linda aylor September 24, 2014 at 8:22 am #

    Thank you for your hard work and expertise. The future is looking better for our beautiful canal. Great job.. well done. AYLOR’S

  6. J.Lee September 23, 2014 at 9:59 pm #

    Thank you so much for writing about our historical canals! It’s such a serious issue. This is about saving our historic canals of over 100 years, helping the farmers keep their water draw, saving the wildlife who have made their habitats here, and helping 1/4 of Deschutes County keep their well water instead of trucking water in! We don’t want Hydro electric in our neighborhoods. Thanks so much for sharing this!

  7. Karen Jones September 23, 2014 at 5:04 pm #

    This motivating article discloses valuable information on how the Pilot Butte Canal, one of Bend’s most beloved historic, aesthetic, and ecological sites, is being threatened by the Central Oregon Irrigation District’s piping projects. Thank you for presenting relevant criteria that allows people to examine the credibility of COID’s wholesale objection to the historical designation of the Pilot Butte Canal. We cannot underestimate the value of critical thinking as we consider the far reaching impact of piping the canal. Bravo!

  8. kjones September 23, 2014 at 4:56 pm #

    This motivating article discloses valuable information on how the Pilot Butte Canal, one of Bend’s most beloved historic, aesthetic, and ecological sites, is being threatened by the Central Oregon Irrigation District’s piping projects. Thank you for presenting relevant criteria that allows people to examine the credibility of the irrigation district’s wholesale objection to the historical designation of the Pilot Butte Canal. We cannot underestimate the value of critical thinking as we consider the far reaching impact of piping the canal. Bravo!

  9. Smondt September 23, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

    Thank you for this excellent article about the Pilot Butte Canal. It gives me courage to continue to work to preserve this historic site. I hope it will also encourage others. Kudos!

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