HISTORICAL OVERVIEW OF IRRIGATION DEVELOPMENT IN THE BEAR CREEK VALLEY
The Bear Creek Valley’s transformation from sparsely populated settlements to a bountiful agricultural area nationally renowned for its fruit crops is directly tied to the construction of numerous irrigation projects. Over the past century, a complex arrangement of storage and diversion dams, canals, and laterals has shaped the development of the area. Three irrrigation systems in particular have collectively changed the physical landscape and character of the valley: the Talent Irrigation District, the Medford Irrigation District, and the Rogue River Valley Irrigation District.
The 35 mile long Bear Creek Valley is quite narrow in its upper reaches, averaging about 5 miles. It broadens out in the vicinity of Medford to about 8 miles and maintains this width to the Rogue River, of which Bear Creek is a tributary. Elevations of the area range from 1200 to 2300 feet above sea level. The valley is blessed with a moderate climate with mild wet winters and warm dry summers. A frost-free growing season of about 180 days and fertile soils combine to produce attractive conditions for irrigated agriculture.
The first Euro-Americans to enter the area were hunters and trappers. At the time of contact, the Bear Creek Valley was occupied by both the Shasta and Takelma tribes who fished, hunted, and gathered edible plants. In 1826-1827, a fur trapping expedition for the British Hudson’s Bay Company became the first recorded Euro-American exploration of the Southern Oregon region. Given what is known of the venture, it is possible that the trappers camped within the boundaries of Emigrant Lake. Over the following two decades, the Bear Creek Valley became an established north-south transportation corridor for early settlers traveling west of the Cascades.
The first significant wave of immigrants to reach the area, were miners. With the discovery of gold in California in 1848, some Oregonian pioneers headed south to seek their fortunes. Two of these men, Cluggage and Pool, discovered gold in 1850 near present- day Jacksonville Oregon. Others quickly followed and in 1851, Jacksonville, the first town in Southern Oregon, was founded. Settlers quickly recognized the agricultural possibilities of the area and built homes along the valley’s small streams. The new residents raised common field crops and livestock, using adjacent hills and mountains for rangeland.
By 1860, small orchards growing primarily apples had been established from Ashland to Brownsboro. The first fruit trees in the Rogue River Valley were cultivated from black walnut and pear tree seeds carefully carried across the plains in covered wagons by the Billings Family. They planted their precious cargo in the Valley View area in 1854.
Irrigation to allow large-scale agricultural development was slow to occur even though the first known water right in Oregon was filed by Jacob Wagner in 1851. The following year, he built the first irrigation ditch in the state at the junction of Bear Creek and Wagner Creek. Through the 1870’s irrigation was limited and farmers primarily raised cattle and sheep and grew wheat, grasses and corn.
Major changes in the valley occurred with the building of the Southern Pacific Railroad line from San Francisco to Portland. Construction started in Portland in 1868 and the line reached as far as Medford in 1884. In 1887, the tracks between California and Oregon were finally united in Ashland. With the arrival of train transportation, the valley experienced a surge in population. Small communities quickly grew into flourishing towns: Ashland, which was first settled in 1851, was incorporated in 1885, as was Medford. With the ready access to markets, new economic opportunities also became apparent. Lumbering and mining increased, as did agriculture. The first commericial fruit orchard was established outside of Medford in 1885 by J. H. Stewart, a nurseryman, and his friend, J. D. Whitman. A new and profitable industry was born; the export of fresh fruit to eager consumers far beyond the reaches of the Rogue River Valley. The first shipment of fruit to outside markets occurred in 1890 when J. H. Stewart transported a crop of pears and apples. Within the next few years, he launched another first by establishing a packing house in the valley, a vital component of the fruit industry that soon expanded.
The reputation of the area’s fine produce quickly spread and in 1891 fruit was being delivered to Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Washington, and as far away as New York and even Australia. Until the opening of new markets, apples had been the leading fruit in the valley. With the entry of the railroad, the outside demand for peaches and pears sparked the planting of these as well as other fruits. Soon plums, grapes, prunes, apricots, cherries, and a variety of berries could be found growing in the countryside. Medford, with a population of 1800 in 1891, was at the center of the fruit production industry. Large numbers of trees had been planted in the fertile soils to the west of the town limits. The local railroad station became the hub of fruit shipping in the area. Around Ashland, fruit growing also became a major economic force and almost every variety of fruit produced outside the tropics was grown here. The fruit business was touted as profitable with handsome returns for hard work. According to one source, “it was not uncommon for the product of a single acre to sell for $500, $600, and even $700”.
BEGINNING OF ORGANIZED IRRIGATION
An increasing number of growers realized that deep-rooted fruit trees required irrigation in order to produce full-sized fruits. Dependence on rainfall for agriculture was unsatisfactory; the amount and distribution of rain was too unpredictable except for the raising of some grains. Average annual rainfall around Medford is about 17 inches but only 15 percent of that falls during the growing season. Too little rain resulted in a shortage or failure of crops and too much brought an unusual increase in crops, which the market was not prepared to handle.
Due to ambitious land development schemes that failed and a down turn in the local economy in 1910, many lands were still without necessary irrigation water and by 1912 there was a bust in the orchard business. The hard times led some to give up their orchards, enter into other work, or move from the area. Medford’s population, which had reached 8840 in 1910, fell during the ensuing decade to 5756. Other old-timers and newer arrivals chose to hang onto their orchards and try to improve conditions through the creation of irrigation districts. Between 1915 and 1921, seven irrigation districts were established in Jackson and Josephine Counties. Included among these were the Eagle Point ID (1915), Grants Pass ID (1916), Talent ID (1916), Medford ID (1917), Gold Hill ID (1918), Thompson Creek ID (1919) and Fort Vannoy ID (1921). As of 1987 the districts ranged in size from 825 irrigable acres (Fort Vannoy ID) to 16,910 irrigable acres (Talent ID).
EARLY FEDERAL INVESTIGATIONS
The federal government took an interest in irrigation potential in the area. In response to requests involving irrigation developments, the United States Reclamation Service (renamed Bureau of Reclamation in 1923) undertook some investigation in the Rogue River Basin as early as April 1915 under a cooperative contract with the State of Oregon. In 1915, under terms of this contract and under the authority of Chapter 87, “Laws of Oregon for 1913”, the State engineer withdrew all of the unappropriated direct flow of the Rogue River and its tributaries above Raygold for purposes of irrigation, power, domestic use, and storage. Certain tributaries of the Klamath River, which could be diverted to the Rogue River Basin, were also withdrawn.
The studies conducted by Reclamation in cooperation with the State of Oregon resulted in a 1916 report entitled “Rogue River Valley Project” by John R. Whistler, Reclamation Engineer and John H. Lewis, State Engineer. This report, in addition to a survey of other areas in the basin, covered the vicinity of Medford and Ashland. The report included recommendations for possible future water development. The construction of a number of features was outlined, some of which were later built. These included Hyatt Prairie Reservoir, at that time a project proposed by the Foothills Irrigation Company, and in the early planning stages. Another reservoir site, initially identified by the Engineer, V. T. McCray, was suggested to store the waters of Beaver Creek. Eventually this reservoir was built and named Howard Prairie. The recommended distribution system for the Ashland area included the East, Talent, and Ashland Laterals, all of which were later constructed. In the conclusions, the report recommended that, “it be the policy of the United States and the State to consider the Rogue River Valley Project an immediate possibility”. It would be another few decades, however, before Reclamation became involved again.
CREATION OF TALENT IRRIGATION DISTRICT
In 1916 a group of citizens anxious to improve the water supply situation around Ashland and Talent organized the Talent Irrigation District, which was formed on May 22, 1916, and quickly developed plans for an irrigation system. A letter dated September 16, 1916 from Ed Robinson, President of TID, describes the plan as contemplating the “diversion and use of such unappropriated waters as may exist in Emigrant, Neil and Ashland Creeks”. J. C. Dillard, Engineer for TID conducted studies and prepared a report that called for the construction of Hyatt Prairie Reservoir and for the diversion of McDonald Creek through Wagner Gap into the valley. To deliver water to an anticipated 8,500 acres within the District boundaries, canals would need to be built on both sides of the valley to a point parallel with Phoenix. Despite resistance by some District members, on August 21, 1917, TID voted in favor of issuing bonds in the amount of $600,000 to cover the cost of the improvements.
On an ambitious construction schedule, TID pursued to deliver water to about 9,100 acres of irrigable lands within the District boundaries. In March 1920, the first unit, known as the McDonald Unit, was completed for the sum of $250,000. It consisted of water delivered from McDonald Creek, a tributary of the Applegate River, via the McDonald Canal into Wagner Creek, a tributary of Bear Creek. From there the Frederick Lateral was built to deliver water to some of the west side lands.
The completion of the McDonald Unit was followed shortly after with construction of a part of the Talent Lateral, receiving water from Bear Creek. Contracts for construction of the Hyatt Prairie Reservoir with a capacity of 16,000 acre-feet of storage and draining approximately 12 square miles, and construction of the East Lateral were awarded on March 14, 1922. Construction of the Ashland Lateral, diverting from Sampson Creek at Songer Gap and extending north up to Ashland along the west side, was started in 1922. The West Lateral, which takes out of the East Lateral and crosses Bear Creek in a siphon, was at least partially completed by 1924. Also by then, 11,500 acres were being assessed for irrigation water.
The next major construction was Emigrant Dam located south of Ashland on Bear Creek. A contract for the project was awarded in April 1924. When completed, the 110-foot high concrete thin-arch dam created a reservoir with a capacity of 8,500 acre-feet and flooded a maximum of 230 acres. Emigrant Creek and Hill Creek Siphons (on the Ashland Lateral) were started in August 1924 and the steel siphon at Billings Hill, 6,730 feet long, was placed in 1927. The latter siphon conveys water to the West Lateral. To pay for the construction of their facilities, TID sold three issues of bonds between 1919 and 1927 for a total of $1,235,000.
In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s the Bear Creek Valley faced great hardships with the stock market crash and ensuing depression. The twenties had been productive years for orchard growers with more irrigation water available and mature trees producing good crops. The far away markets of Europe were a major importer of famed Rogue River Valley pears. Almost half of the winter pear crop and much of the Bartlett pear crop were sold abroad during the twenties. By 1930, there were 400 pear growers in Jackson County and that year produced the area’s largest pear crop. The Depression era brought an end to the good years as orchard owners struggled to stay in business. Many had no choice but to sell their orchards, other simply abandoned them. The weather also conspired against growers; a harsh freeze in 1934 forced some to give up their property. As if all that wasn’t enough, a severe blight attacked fruit trees and spread damage to many orchards. It was during this bleak time, however, that one of the area’s most successful businesses emerged. Harry and David Holmes began their mail order business of fruit gift packages that still thrives today.
In the early 1930’s TID like many businesses in the Depression, faced bankruptcy. Farmers could not pay taxes and the District was faced with a water shortage because of a cycle of several years of below normal rainfall. The District was unable to meet its’ principal or interest payments to bondholders. Assistance in 1935 in the form of a loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) helped reduce the District’s debts.
BEGINNINGS OF BASIN-WIDE SURVEYS
During the Depression, awareness was heightened of the need for a dependable irrigation supply and the importance of the Rogue River Basin’s water resources. A number of studies were conducted in the 1930’s by several agencies. In 1932, the United States Geological Survey published Water Supply Paper No. 6381-B, “Water Power Resources of the Rogue River Basin, Oregon”. The document inventoried power potential of the Basin with descriptions of dam sites and power sites and related geologic features. In 1936, the Portland District of the Corps of Engineers was authorized to make preliminary studies of flood control requirements on the Rogue and Applegate Rivers, and Bear Creek.
As various studies and discussions proceeded, area residents and groups articulated conflicting views on the best course of development for the Rogue River Basin. During the 1940’s the population of the area grew significantly and competing interests for the use of limited resources emerged. These diverse interests included irrigation, power production, flood control, and sport fishing. This resulted in publication of a report in 1948 by Reclamation titled “Alternative Plans for Development of the Water Resources of the Rogue River Basin”. In the document, two alternative plans were presented that attempted to optimize the land and water resources of the basin in accordance with the area interests expressed. The report was produced prior to a public meeting held in Medford on June 8 and 9, 1948 to solicit input. At the meeting, residents indicated an overwhelming support for Plan A, which was designed for power production, flood control, and complete irrigation development at the least cost. Included was the proposed construction of Lewis Dam on the Rogue River. Plan B included the same irrigation benefits with no dam and less power development. This was the variation that was favored by fishing and recreational interests.
AUTHORIZATION OF TALENT DIVISION PROJECT
In December of 1953 Reclamation released a revision of a July 1953 report for the proposed Talent Division, an area within the Rogue River Basin. Rather than present a comprehensive basin-wide plan, Reclamation focused on the Bear Creek Valley where proposed improvements appeared feasible from an economic and engineering standpoint. At that time irrigated lands in the Bear Creek Valley totaled about 20,000 acres and almost all were within organized irrigation districts, the largest of which was TID. The latter comprised about 10,000 acres of irrigated lands. Water for TID was supplied from storage at Hyatt Prairie and Emigrant Reservoirs, by canal diversions from Bear, McDonald, Greely, Wagner, and Neil Creeks, and other minor diversions.
The Talent Division as defined in the report encompassed lands in Jackson County that were primarily served by the TID. A small amount of acreage (2,680) was under MID. The report noted three water-associated needs identified in the area: an expanded water supply for irrigation, flood control along Bear Creek, and expansion of the power potential in Southwest Oregon. Reclamation’s ambitious plan for the Talent Division basically called for an extension and addition to works of TID.
Existing features would be used to the extent possible, with some canals requiring enlargement. Storage at Emigrant Reservoir was also to be increased. Keene Creek Canal, Sampson Creek Diversion Dam, and Emigrant Creek Siphon on the Ashland Lateral were to be abandoned. Works to be constructed included Howard Prairie Dam and Reservoir, Howard Prairie Delivery Canal, Power Canal, Penstock, Green Springs Powerplant, reconstruction of Emigrant Dam, extensions of Ashland and West Laterals, collection canals, diversion dams, and drainage works. The plan would provide a sufficient water supply for 17,890 acres of irrigable lands, develop 10,000 kilowatts of power, reduce flood damages, and enhance recreation opportunities. The project would benefit the TID, MID and RRVID by providing supplemental water to all three districts.
In 1956 the water users of TID voted and approved the signing of a contract with the Bureau of Reclamation for the rehabilitation and enlargement of the system. The contract was signed by TID on August 27, 1956. The estimated reimbursable cost for the construction of the project was $20,582,000 of which $12,321,000 was allocated to irrigation. Another $606,000 was allocated for flood control, recreation, and fish and wildlife facilities, which were non- reimbursable, but brought the total project cost to $21,180,000. Of the $12,321,000 which was allocated for irrigation, the District was required to reimburse the Bureau $5,810,000. To repay this contract, TID makes annual payments of $86,581 to the Bureau of Reclamation each December. The contract was an interest free loan and will be paid off in the year 2036.
The major construction on the Talent Division was accomplished by 1960. Expansion of Emigrant Dam occurred between 1958-1960, Howard Prairie Dam was built in 1957-1958, and Keene Creek Dam in 1958-1959. Diversion facilities completed included Ashland Lateral Diversion Dam (1959), Beaver Creek Diversion Dam (1960), Conde Creek Diversion Dam (1958), Daley Creek Diversion Dam (1960), Dead Indian Diversion Dam (1958), Little Beaver Creek Diversion Dam (1959), Phoenix Canal Diversion Dam (1960), Soda Creek Diversion Dam (1959) and South Fork Little Butte Creek Diversion Dam (1960). New canals included the Howard Prairie Delivery Canal (1956-1959), the South Fork Collection Canal (1958-1959), and the Daley Creek Collection Canal (1958-1960). Other new features were the Deadwood Tunnel (1956-1958), the Billings Siphon (1959), the Green Springs Power Conduit (1957-1959), and the Green Springs Powerplant (1960).
When the Talent Division was completed, TID, MID and RRVID were intricately tied to each other in a complex system of reservoirs and canals that included 7 storage dams, 20 diversion dams, and 250 miles of canal. All three districts obtain water form Howard Prairie Lake, Hyatt Reservoir, Emigrant Lake, Keene Creek Reservoir, and Bear Creek and its tributaries. Fourmile Lake and Fish Lake provide a partial water supply to RRVID and MID and Agate Reservoir provides water to RRVID. Return flows from irrigation that are not diverted for reuse return to Bear Creek and the Rogue River.
INVESTIGATION OF ADDITIONAL WATER
In 1966 a study of the Medford Division was released by Reclamation describing the water- related problems and needs of the area. At the time about 70,000 acres were irrigated in the basin, but the report concluded that no significant expansion could take place without the development of additional water supplies. A proposal to use water supplies from the Corps of Engineers Lost Creek and Elk Creek Storage projects was presented. During the course of the studies, local interest was expressed for improvement of streamflows in Bear Creek. As a result, the 1966 study included the elements of fish and wildlife enhancement, recreation, and water quality control, in addition to irrigation. A complex scheme for water exchanges to supplement Bear Creek and Little Butte Creek flows was outlined. Flows in Bear Creek were to be provided by infusing Lost Creek-Elk Creek water into the Talent District to allow for releases from Emigrant reservoir into Bear Creek. More investigations followed in the 1970’s and 80’s as other alternatives were analyzed. During this time, the character of the area changed as the population continued to grow. By 1985, pear acreage had dropped from a maximum of 12,000 to about 8,000. The number of commercial growers also declined dramatically. By the early 1990’s, there were only 36 as compared to the 300 in 1930. Suburban development has encroached on farmlands and small tracts of less than five acres now receive much of the water. Although agriculture and timber remain predominant industries, recreation has steadily been growing.
The quest for additional water continues. Today TID, MID and RRVID are exploring ways to increase supplies through water conservation measures and supplemental storage.