Saving water and energy in the Klamath Basin

Posted by Lee Rahr on April 27, 2015

Lee Rahr, Energy Program Director, takes us on a tour of energy efficiency on farms and ranches in the basin.

Robert Wallace demonstrates energy efficiency equipment for Klamath Basin irrigators.

The Klamath River Basin is a 16,000 square mile watershed straddling the Oregon-California border. It is home to a rich array of fish and wildlife, native people, an agriculture industry, and commercial and tribal fisheries. Like many food producing regions across the west, the Klamath must balance a $600 million farming and fishing industry with the needs of wildlife. Sustainable Northwest is helping local communities navigate this complex relationship by exploring opportunities for water and energy savings.

Driving into Sprague, Oregon for a day-long meeting with our energy efficiency contractor, Robert Wallace of Wy’East RC&D, and over a dozen farmers and ranchers, I pass irrigation wheel lines, small solar panels on irrigation pump stations, and cattle grazing on fresh spring grass. A pair of sandhill cranes flies overhead, and red tail hawks are perched on irrigation pivots and utility poles. Working lands are in active production, and the competing needs for productive land and adequate water for fish and wildlife are evident. 

The goal for this trip is to discover small changes that irrigators can make to save water and energy by increasing the efficiency of pumping water for crops. The day begins with a classroom workshop followed by a site visit to help farmers and ranchers learn about the existing energy and water savings programs available through the Energy Trust of Oregon and Oregon Department of Energy. Robert Wallace leads our field visit and explains easy to implement energy and water saving operations and maintenance practices. We look at sprinkler hardware and an irrigation pump to evaluate where simple equipment changes can save water and money. Just like turning down your home’s thermostat, or shutting off lights when not in use, energy efficiency techniques are the least expensive way for farmers and ranchers to save 10 – 30% on their farm power bills. 

In addition to exploring on-farm irrigation equipment upgrades, Sustainable Northwest is working with local stakeholders to identify renewable energy opportunities to bring down the costs of on-farm energy use. The agriculture industry is a heavy water user, and moving water through irrigation canals and pipes takes a lot of energy. We’re looking for ways to reduce pumping costs and take advantage of the region’s greatest resource – the sun – to generate power from community-scaled solar photovoltaics. We are working to increase the use of solar energy for pumps and farm buildings, and also pursuing more innovative models such as renewable energy co-ops. A renewable energy co-op is a new model in Oregon that allows members to cooperatively work together to purchase solar equipment, generate their own solar energy, and then sell the power back to the utility or use the power on-site. A Klamath co-op would help irrigators further reduce power costs, while working together towards a positive common goal. 

Maintaining a viable agricultural community is critical to the ecological, social, and economic health of the Klamath Basin. However this will be difficult as we continue to face drought and place pressure on the limited supply of clean water. The agricultural community is showing it is ready to find practical and innovative ways to reduce their power and water consumption, and adopt innovative best practices that will help them meet this goal while supporting the rich diversity of fish and wildlife.