Muddied waters and 'Band-Aid' fixes
Landslides into McDonald Ditch are a common cause of Little Applegate River turbidity
APPLEGATE — After an April 27 fishing trip at Applegate Lake with her father, Lesley Adams drove past the strangely muddy waters of the Little Applegate River and knew exactly what had happened.
Surely, a piece of the 90-year-old McDonald Ditch that snakes through four miles of unstable hillsides in the river's headwaters near McDonald Creek had failed again in a landslide.
The only question was, which piece.
The next day, she found where a madrone had fallen into the ditch and caused water in it to back up until the earthen walls caved, spewing unknown tons of mud into McDonald Creek and eventually over the winter steelhead egg nests laid within the Little Applegate.
The ditch had failed — just like it did two years ago, the year before that and so often over the decades that complaints about a muddy Little Applegate appear to residents as a dubious rite of spring.
"The Little Applegate is struggling enough with its salmon and steelhead without a predictable source of all that sediment," said Adams, an Applegate Valley native who is also a Rogue basin activist for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, an environmental group.
"If we really want to commit ourselves to salmon and steelhead restoration, we need to look at things like this," she said.
More eyes are focusing now on the McDonald Ditch after this latest failure, and officials are wondering how best to draw this 1920s relic into the 21st century of irrigation without financially crippling its owner, the Talent Irrigation District, yet still protect downstream habitat.
TID Manager Jim Pendleton already spends about $20,000 a year adding Band-Aids to the hemorrhaging hillsides when the district replaces failed ditch sections with pipe.
He'd love to pipe the entire reach and bid adieu to the exposed canal, but the estimated $600,000 in materials alone is something the district cannot afford.
Ultimately, a fledgling multi-agency plan to pipe and connect most main irrigation canals snaking through Jackson County could include decommissioning the McDonald Ditch and delivering water to TID's 50 patrons served by the ditch via a pipe connected to Emigrant Lake.
But that project, called WISE, is cash-strapped and its progress through needed environmental studies is still in its infancy.
"I think there are some options out there, but the problem always is funding," Pendleton said.
Until a long-term solution is found, Pendleton's crews will continue to slither down these steep hillsides and hand-fix pieces of ditch lost from future slides as they struggle to maintain this irrigation dinosaur.
"You just look at it and think, wow, how did those guys even get this thing in here?" Pendleton said.
From the beginning, the McDonald Ditch was an engineering crapshoot born from necessity.
Landowners in the upper reaches of Wagner Creek had rights to draw water from that creek for irrigation, but they were junior rights to lower-elevation landowners with older, more senior rights. Those senior rights allowed them to draw all their allotted water before the upstream landowners could legally get a drop.
During dry years, landowners with junior rights received little or no water. So they eyed water just over Wagner Gap in the Little Applegate drainage and joined the infant TID, which looked for a way to deliver that water from one drainage to the other.
"That was the best source of water available at the time," Pendleton said.
Chinese laborers carved a ditch through a series of Forest Service and private holdings to transfer about 15 cubic feet per second of water across the divide and into Wagner Creek, completing the task in 1920.
But the ditch traversed very steep hillsides whose decomposed granite soils had a history of failing and sliding in storms. Debris clogged and backed up in regular-enough fashion that TID had a full-time ditch-walker there during the irrigation season to keep water flowing.
Over the decades, slides occurring above and below have breached the ditch, usually pushing mud through McDonald Creek and into the Little Applegate before reaching the Applegate River.
That's what happened two weeks ago when a slide muddied the Little Applegate during the peak spawning period for winter steelhead.
"We woke up in the morning, and the river looked like mud," said Priscilla Weaver, whose ranch is on the Little Applegate near its confluence with Yale Creek. "It looks like somebody was working illegally in the river with a bulldozer. It's horrific."
The Little Applegate is considered a key watershed for salmon recovery, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has identified 19 miles of steelhead spawning habitat there.
Excess turbidity can settle out and coat steelhead redds, causing them to lose the ability to filter nutrients from water as they incubate.
"There's no question that, for a stream that size and the amount of material that seems to have eroded into that habitat, it certainly isn't good for (steelhead) eggs in the gravel," said Dan VanDyke, the ODFW's Rogue District fish biologist.
Over the decades, TID has fixed the slides as they've occurred, and now about 15 percent of the ditch is piped, Pendleton said.
The pieces of 24-inch pipe are laid and covered with dirt and connected to each end of the exposed canal much like a culvert carries a small stream under a roadway.
TID workers must carry the pipe down steep hillsides by hand and ferry concrete in five-gallon buckets on ropes at times to make the repairs, said Bo Bergren, TID's dam-tender at Howard Prairie and a veteran of many a repair.
"It isn't any fun working up here," Bergren said while surveying the latest patch. "It's all manual. You have to drag everything by hand."
One steep section across Greeley Creek contained a redwood flume splintered in a slide. TID replaced it in the 1980s with two 18-inch pipes that had to be airlifted into place by a helicopter, Bergren said.
Driving the Forest Service road above the ditch, Bergren eyed several old repairs as well as stretches of roadway starting to sink and prepping to fail.
On some slopes, the question isn't whether it will slide. It's when, and how badly.
"Once it starts, it goes," he said.
Pendleton would like to see new 24-inch piping for the remainder of the ditch, and his crews could install the pipes if they were provided, he said.
Leaning on the federal Bureau of Reclamation is an unlikely option because this section of the TID system was left off the bureau umbrella when it folded TID and two other local irrigation districts under the newly created Rogue River Basin Project's Talent Division in 1958, Pendleton said.
The bureau excluded the ditch, Pendleton said, because the elevation was too high to work in tandem with the rest of the system.
A multi-agency group called Water for Irrigation, Streams and Economy, or WISE, last year completed a preliminary engineering study on piping a series of open irrigation canals throughout the Bear Creek and Little Butte Creek systems, and fixing the McDonald Ditch has been listed as a high priority.
One option under WISE would decommission the ditch and pipe water to Wagner Creek from within TID's regular system fed by Emigrant Lake.
But WISE might be years from becoming reality, its organizers say. It took WISE about four years to get the $1 million from Congress for the pre-feasibility study, which is a precursor to studies of the environmental impacts of the overall WISE project, whose cost estimates run anywhere from $100 million to $800 million.
"The WISE Project is sort of a silver bullet, but can we afford the silver bullet?" said Bob Jones, president of the committee overseeing WISE.
Though possible funding sources may appear at times as murky as the Little Applegate after a slide, finding a solution to the decades-old problems of the McDonald Ditch needs to climb its way onto the to-do list of some group or agency, said Adams of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.
If not, walls of muddy water will continue to be part of spring in the Little Applegate, and that's just not acceptable, Adams said.
"I'm not sure where the money could or should come from," Adams said. "But something needs to be done.
"Maybe this ditch made sense in 1920," she said. "But in the 21st century, I'm not sure it's the place to move water."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail at email@example.com.