Are there any real conservation groups working on the upper Deschutes?

Wildlife News recently posted an article titled “Deschutes River–Irrigation Canal or Wild River?” written by Bend resident George Wuerthner. I believe his post is worth a thoughtful read. He makes an argument that I have been making for years about who owns public water and who should pay for it. Further, he echoes a criticism I have made of the Deschutes River Conservancy and he extends that criticism to newcomer Coalition for the Deschutes. While I am deeply sympathetic to the thrust of the article, my own views have become more nuanced. Like with so many complex issues, the elegant and morally correct solution currently looks unattainable and compromise can make for strange bedfellows. Read more below. I will soon be making more posts about the political/policy side of restoring flows in the Deschutes.

Mr. Wuerthner argues that the fundamental issue of who owns public water, whom it should benefit, and who should pay for it has not been addressed by the Basin Study Work Group. On this point he is absolutely correct. The history of water appropriation in Central Oregon bears little resemblance to our current demographic and economic makeup. It has been a very long time since we lived in a region of subsistence farming. In fact, as the original farms have been subdivided the average “farm” in the Central Oregon Irrigation District is only 11 acres. Only 4% of the land is used for anything other than pasture or hay. Nevertheless, irrigators get 90% of the water in the Deschutes. Now forced by the Endangered Species Act to return some of their water to the Deschutes, the irrigators are demanding that taxpayers fund system upgrades to modernize their delivery systems at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. It boggles the mind that the public will have to pay to get back the water that they own. Another excellent example of taxpayer subsidies for special interests.

It is also true that organizations like the DRC, and PR-savvy newcomer the Coalition for the Deschutes, have played a role in developing and promoting these modernization and funding plans. Other groups like Central Oregon Flyfishers, Sunriver Anglers, and Trout Unlimited, should also be added to this list. They have all been voting members of the Basin Study Work Group and helped create a veneer of support by conservationists. The DRC has been a primary facilitator and organizer of the effort. On one level, it is absolutely correct to question the motives of these groups and their apparent willingness to work with the irrigators on plans that are inherently biased towards maintaining the status quo at the expense of the public.

As has been repeatedly pointed out to me, however, there’s a difference between what is right and what is possible. A wholesale change in Oregon water law to redistribute existing water rights to reflect current realities is the elegant and morally correct course of action. For example, why are “in-stream” water rights (those meant to support fish and wildlife) the most junior water rights? Why are the “real” farms in North Unit Irrigation District junior to the mostly “gentleman farms” in Central Oregon Irrigation District? Unfortunately, a redistribution of water to reflect current economic, demographic, and cultural realities is not currently in the realm of possibilities.

In the west, water is power and the irrigators have the water. The DRC must be given credit for attempting to navigate this complex issue and explore solutions that are more timely and lower cost than those favored by the irrigators. I appreciate a firebrand like Mr. Wuerthner and remain deeply skeptical of the motives of the irrigators and their reliance on a massive subsidy of public funds for their private benefit. I am also resigned to looking for solutions within the context of current water law. Sadly, to do otherwise is to tilt at windmills and my jousting lance has been broken. On the other hand, if there is a firebrand attorney out there who wants to challenge Oregon water law, I’m sure there would be plenty of support.