BSWG, Irrigators, and the Betrayal of the Common Good

The Basin Study Work Group was a multiyear study of water issues, primarily centered on the upper Deschutes River, which concluded last week.  The Deschutes River Conservancy did an excellent job of shepherding the effort, producing valuable studies that added to our knowledge of how water is managed and strategies that could be used to conserve it, although none of them are required to be implemented.  The final meeting ended with participants congratulating each other for a job well done which, for me, crystallized the failures of the process, including the catastrophic draining of Wickiup Reservoir this summer.

During the self-congratulatory phase of the last meeting most participants, including irrigation districts, fishing clubs, and various city, state, and federal agency representatives, spoke of how the foundation had been laid to collaboratively seek additional taxpayer funding to continue piping projects.  Piping is an important part of the solution, but other methods of conserving water, quicker to implement and at a far lower cost, were also studied.

Oregon water law gives the irrigation districts the right to take essentially all of the water in the upper Deschutes, which they have frequently done in the past.  Given that, the practical perspective is that taxpayers should fund the infrastructure upgrades the irrigators prefer, primarily canal piping, no matter the cost, which is projected to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  Piping leaky canals will allow for the continuation of the full allocation of water to irrigators while conserving enough to deliver minimum flows to the upper Deschutes, flows which could restore a modest level of biological sustainability.

That sounds good, but it only addresses part of the problem.  Irrigators are required to use their water whether they want it or not and many have highly inefficient delivery systems.  Private lateral canal and on-farm upgrades combined with allowing water rights holders to sell water to other users or return it to the river would conserve huge amounts of water at a far lower cost than piping.  Piping the main canals without lateral canal and on-farm upgrades is like fixing a leaky water main while you also have a leaky pipe to your house and requiring you to keep all your faucets and hoses running so that you are sure to use up all of “your” water.

I understand the practical perspective but believe that it is time for fundamental change.  Water laws written 100 years are no longer appropriate.  In the past 100 years Central Oregon has radically changed, as have our societal values.  Since the water of the Deschutes was given away women demanded the right to vote, air and water pollution regulations were enacted, we embraced workplace and consumer product safety requirements, the list goes on. Important change can happen, but only if we insist on it.  Given the severity of the water problem and what will be increasing impacts from global warming I believe it is time to agitate for fundamental change.

I want to be very clear: I am not suggesting that water be withheld from farmers.  But as I have detailed in many places in this blog, much of the water being diverted from the Deschutes is not being used efficiently to irrigate crops or provide feed.  Maintaining current deliveries to many water rights holders simply does not meet a modern definition of beneficial use.  The use of the public’s water, our water, should be for the benefit of the public.  Far too often this is not the case.  (Click on the BSWG category to see prior posts.)

There is also an economic angle to consider.  Irrigators have been taking the public’s water for almost 100 years with no financial remuneration in return.  Now they are asking taxpayer assistance for a massive and costly upgrade of their antiquated infrastructure.  Without question, this needs to be done, but why should taxpayers foot the bill?

I know that in modern America everyone has their hand out.  Subsidies and bailouts are everywhere.  But that does not make it right.  We taxpayers are footing a shocking, unsustainable bill on national, state, and local levels.  We are being asked to add to that debt by subsidizing irrigators who, in my opinion, should be paying their own way.  BSWG uncovered more affordable, quicker to implement approaches but the irrigators continue to focus on the most expensive solutions.  That’s fine, piping needs to be done, but they should pay for it.  That should be the American way.