- Associated Press - Monday, November 9, 2015

BEND, Ore. (AP) - A National Park Service decision has reignited century-old tensions over the ownership of irrigation canals that bring water to central Oregon.

NPS recently decided not to recognize the Central Oregon Irrigation District as the owner of Pilot Butte Canal, reported The Bulletin reports (http://bit.ly/1MHdSEk ). The canal is operated by the district and draws water away from the Deschutes River.

That decision will prevent the district from formally objecting to a 1 ½ -mile section of the canal being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Landowners near Juniper Ridge are seeking the designation.

If the canal is listed, it could prevent the irrigation district from piping or making other changes to the canal structure.

Irrigation districts in the Deschutes River Basin are piping their canals to conserve water, and the ownership dispute has ended up in court more than once.

The Park Service is the keeper of the historic register, but irrigation district manager Craig Horrell says NPS doesn’t have the authority to judge ownership and the decision won’t set a precedent.

The ownership dispute dates back to the early 20th century, when the canals were created by blasting rock and digging. They were used to divert water to central Oregon, allowing the region’s federal land to be divided into private farms and ranches.

“It was a condition of letting the property become private,” said Marc Thalacker, manager of the Three Sisters Irrigation District. “It’s what made the West. Everybody forgets that’s why we’re here.”

The Carey Act formed districts to use the canals and the Right of Way Act granted them continued access to the infrastructure.

“Both of them clearly state and support ownership and right of ways to the canals to be maintained by the districts,” said Horrell.

But private property lines include chunks of land where the water crosses and the boundaries have been hotly disputed.

In an email to the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office, National Register of Historic Places Chief Paul Loether wrote that the Park Service would only recognize an owner as one who holds an “absolute interest in the property.”

Some property owners are opposed to piping because they believe it will diminish their property values. They don’t view irrigation districts as having rights to the canal, arguing that they pay property taxes are based on land that includes segments of the structures.

“Their deeds say they own to the centerline of the canal, and they pay property taxes on that land,” said Josette Storm of her neighbors’ claim to the Pilot Butte Canal.

Storm’s property line doesn’t include the canal but she is within the overall historic district that would be created if the canal makes it onto the national register.

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Information from: The Bulletin, http://www.bendbulletin.com

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