Pamplin Media Group – A look back at the history of the Ochoco Irrigation District


It soon became apparent that the summer flow of local waterways was insufficient to support profitable agriculture.

The Prineville Valley was settled by farmers and ranchers beginning in the 1860s. They settled the lowlands of Ochoco Creek, McKay Creek, and Crooked River and constructed small gravity irrigation systems individual. Their water supply was the water that flowed in streams at that time. It soon became apparent that the summer stream flow was insufficient to support profitable agriculture. In 1915 an influential report was published (The Ochoco Project, State of Oregon and US Reclamation Service), which concluded that a storage reservoir should be constructed on Ochoco Creek, and that the valley irrigation ditches should be organized into a single, integrated system.

The settlers held an election to create the Ochoco Irrigation District in 1916. On February 5, 1916, the Ochoco Irrigation District was born. The district’s immediate objective was to construct the Ochoco Reservoir and canal system as recommended in the report.

During the period 1918 to 1921, the Ochoco Dam and Canal was under construction. The Ochoco Dam is unique in that it is an earthen zoned structure that was constructed by hydraulic filling methods. This means that the fill material was transported and placed through a system of channels, using water to move the fill material. The district office has photos taken during construction and they are available at the district office for viewing.

Originally, the total irrigable land in the district was just over 22,000 acres. However, the district had financial problems in the early years of the project due to drought and depression. As a result, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation refinanced the project, and by order of the state engineer, the area was reduced to 8,500 acres.

In 1947, Ochoco Dam was deemed unsafe, and the district entered into a contract with the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to rehabilitate the dam. This work was done in 1949 and 1950.

The full capacity of the Ochoco Reservoir is 44,330 acre-feet. However, this amount of water was, in some years, insufficient to irrigate all the project lands. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Mr. LaSelle Coles, District Manager at the time, along with local farmers, the BOR and area legislators began to pursue construction of the Crooked River Project. Thanks to these efforts and the countless hours of Mr. Coles, the construction of the Arthur Bowman Dam was completed in 1961 by the BOR. Operation of the reservoir was handed over to the district in 1962.

Bowman Dam has a total capacity of 150,216 acre-feet, with 60,000 acre-feet of space available for flood control during winter and spring. This additional amount of water allows the district to serve 20,061 acres and more than 898 customers.

In 1967, the Crooked River Extension Project was initiated. This project enabled the district to supply water to the land above the main canals in the district. Several pumping stations and diversions were built by the district to bring water to these new lands. Today the district has over 150 miles of canals, diversions and pipelines. It also operates 29 lift pumps. By 1978, the additional land was all developed. The state mapped all irrigated land and issued the district’s water entitlement certificate in 1987.

Ochoco Dam underwent additional dam safety work in the mid-1990s.

The Ochoco Irrigation District has endured many hardships but also many victories as the district continues to function 100 years later and is a vital part of the Prineville and Crook County community. Thanks to the early pioneers, the district is moving forward and today offers many additional benefits for recreation and fishing. The main agricultural crops grown today are cereals, alfalfa grass and hay, pasture, grass and carrot seed.

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