Last week, our summer season began. We welcomed 7 new interns into their canvas tent cabins and prepared for an intensive week of orientation, learning all the systems of the farm.

Our first day was completely engulfed by the topic of water. As the most crucial building block of life, the key to success in everything, we needed to know where our water comes from and how it is distributed through the farm.

Rainshadow Organics is a part of the Three Sisters Irrigation District (TSID) which runs northeast from the upper Whychus creek system as it flows off the North Sister to where it confluences with the Deschutes. Eleven years ago the irrigation district was connected by open ditches and canals, which directed the water to farms. Once the water reached the farm, it was pumped out by the farmer onto their land.

Central Oregon farmers began to realize the irrigation canals were extremely problematic and inefficient for them and the surrounding communities. Irrigation canals are only 30% efficient at delivering water through the district. This means 70% of the water was being lost to evaporation and seepage. The water in the irrigation streams was evaporating too quickly causing a drought and inability for farmers to meet their irrigation needs. By mid to late summer, the canals had completely dried up and many farmers had no other way to irrigate during the hottest months of the year.  Irrigation was also contributing heavily to the endangerment of native fish populations.

These negative impacts called for action. In Central Oregon, the water districts are locally run, meaning that the district has representatives who meet and make decisions about water allocations and distribution. Eleven years ago, farmers began to propose alternative irrigation systems to mitigate the effects of irrigation.

The district manager, Marc Thalacker, proposed an underground piping system that would carry water from the upper Whychus creek underground to farms. Piping the water is 100% efficient at delivering water to where it is needed. This means that piping the water saved 70% of the water pouring off the North Sister. That 70% is returned to the stream as it flows into the Deschutes, providing the native fish populations with more cold, clear water that they need to thrive.  Piping the water through the district also meant that the water coming to farms was now naturally pressurized. Farmers no longer needed to use energy to pump water out of the ponds onto their farms.

As the proposals for irrigation pipes were made eleven years ago, Sarahlee Lawrence, our farmer, had just made her return to her family’s farm, now Rainshadow Organics, from raft guiding around the world. Her and other Lower Bridge farmers jumped on their welders and excavators and built the first miles of pipeline in the TSID. It was hard and dirty work, but their amount of grit and passion for an improved irrigation system and water conservation guided them to success. They led the charge into irrigation modernization, making positive change and strides for their farms and the surrounding natural environment.

Now, eleven years later, the Three Sisters Irrigation District celebrated piping its final miles of irrigation canals with a ceremonial ribbon cutting in March 2019. The TSID has piped 90% of its 64 miles of canals. TSID is a strong model in irrigation for the rest of the region. As the climate changes and water becomes more scarce, revamping the current irrigation system is crucial.

At Rainshadow, our water is incredibly efficient. We use drip irrigation in our hoop houses, greenhouses, and in our two acre garden. Drip irrigation drips out water on our beds, right near the plant roots, not wasting a single drop. Our 25 acre field is watered by wheel lines. This model reduces the amount of plastic we use on our farm and allows the water to reach the full field.

A week ago, we stood at the top of our main irrigation line and turned it on for the summer season. Water began to flow, pumping life and moisture into the soil. As our season progresses water is crucial to the cultivation of the food we grow at Rainshadow. The greens become heartier, and the tomatoes ripen all because of the water that nourishes them. We definitely don’t take it for granted and as a group of young people hoping to gain the skills to have our own farms one day, understanding water here is clearly foundational.