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Water forum hosts irrigation field trip

Water forum hosts irrigation field trip

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Students who may be the future irrigators of the Bitterroot Valley followed the flow of water from Lake Como to irrigation users on Tuesday.

The Bitter Root Water Forum hosted high school students on a tour of Bitterroot irrigation structures and systems for the Bitter Root Irrigation and Daly Ditches Irrigation districts. The tour included a look at Lake Como, feeder ditches, fish conservation structures and private land.

Nearly 30 Corvallis, Victor and Stevensville Future Farmers of America students and senior agriculture students were selected to attend the fifth year of the field trip.

Field trip coordinator Stephanie Adams said the field trip is very popular.

“We have taken 40 to 60 kids in the past and the numbers keep increasing,” Adams said. “We decided to make it more competitive and have students write essays to get to make the trip. This is the first time we’re taking Corvallis kids and students in Stevensville’s senior ag classes.”

Adams said the trip provided the opportunity for kids to experience the natural environment and understand the importance of water.

“We’re getting them to think about how important irrigation is to the Bitterroot Valley,” Adams said. “Teachers had told us it is especially good to show the kids the water flow.”

The trip started at the storage reservoir of Lake Como, continued downstream though diversions, head gates and fish screens ending on irrigated property.

At Lake Como, Bitter Root Water Commissioner Al Pernichele shared about irrigation in the Bitterroot Valley.

“I work at Painted Rocks and thought I’d convey some knowledge,” Pernichele said.

He talked about history, climate change and water rights.

John Crowley, Bitter Root Irrigation District Manager, took students into the dam operations center. He talked about the history of the dam and the early vision to provide water for orchards and crops.

“The water started flowing in 1910 from a semi-hydraulic dam. It has a little over a million and a half cubic yards of material in the dam,” he said. “When they added the safety modifications they added another half-million-cubic-yards of dirt.”

Crowley said early engineers built the lake to provide a longer irrigation season for the users downstream.

“In the valley we have 68,665 irrigated acres,” he said. “The ag people are very dependent on the water. They couldn’t grow the crops they have or water the animals without this water. If you look at Google Earth, anything east of the big ditch is all dry and barren, anything to the west is farmland. Water makes a big difference.”

Crowley said the lake will hold 38,495-acre feet when full and the lake is almost to that depth. Once full, it starts flowing over the spillway and the water flows into the Bitterroot River.

This year the lake has not begun to spill. Last year it started to spill on May 22. Crowley said the recent cool weather is helping the snowpack last longer extending the irrigation season.

Inside the gatehouse and operations center, Crowley showed the students the tunnel and ladder that goes 80-feet-deep into the dam. A guard gate and a control gate regulate the water flow into the canal. The water level and each piece of equipment are monitored monthly, weekly and daily. The information is sent to the Bureau of Reclamation for a “double-check” of the system.

Crowley said the main canal is 72 miles long, dropping a foot in elevation every mile so the water keeps flowing, and about 146 miles of open ditches.

“We’re a big system and there are several other irrigation systems below that,” Crowley said. “We collect the water on the west side and the bulk of our users are on the east side.”

Also at Lake Como, students heard presentations on soil, irrigation and water storage from Stacy Pease, NRCS Soil Conservationist.

The students traveled to the Republican Ditch and fish screen and learned the process of water diversion and fish conservation from Tim Michael of Daly Ditches and Chris Clancy a Fish Wildlife and Parks Fisheries Biologist.

The tour ended at Huls Dairy for a discussion with Dan and Tim Huls about best management practices and water conservation.

Adams said the Bitter Root Water Forum field trip educates future irrigators.

“This field trip is starting the conversation that will carry us into the future generations,” Adams said.

Katie Vennie, programs assistant of the Bitter Root Water Forum, said the field trips started after a 2011 survey that assessed the state of natural resources education in the valley.

“By talking with dozens of educators we found that there was a desire to offer more field trips to students, but the time to organize, plan and fund the trips just wasn’t available,” Vennie said.

The Bitter Root Water Forum, a community driven nonprofit, worked with FFA teachers and irrigation professionals to design the comprehensive field trip.

BRWF’s Executive Director Heather Barber said the yearly event is successful.

“This trip is just one example of how we have been able to increase students’ access to watershed education by partnering with other natural resource professionals,” Barber said. “Since we conducted the survey in 2011 we have reached over 3,000 students with classroom lessons and field trips where students can dive in to watershed education.”

The Jane S. Heman Foundation and other local donors who support the water forum’s watershed education programs funded the field trip.

For more information about the Bitter Root Water Forum visit, or call 406-375 – 2272.

Reach reporter Michelle McConnaha at 363-3300 or


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