Another View on Canal Piping: Water Security for Oregon

On March 19 the Bulletin ran a front-page story about Senator Merkely helping local irrigation districts “re-plumb” Central Oregon.  Piping local irrigation canals is needed and on the surface this is excellent news.  The devil is always in the details, however.

About 100 years ago, in an attempt to attract subsistence farmers to the wilderness of Central Oregon, water rights were granted to local irrigation districts to divert our rivers into the high desert.  Irrigators now have rights to 90% of local water, water that is not always used to produce food.

Note that water rights, not water ownership, were granted.  Oregon law states that the public owns all water.  Irrigation districts and others have rights to the water, but only if it is beneficially used for the public trust without waste.

In exchange for granting water rights, the public has not been paid a single penny while irrigators have profited.  In fact, along with granting rights at no charge, for decades the public has been subsidizing irrigators in many ways.  Senator Merkley and others before him have dramatically increased the public subsidy of local irrigation districts via funding for canal piping.  The public continues to get nothing.

Why don’t we demand that the irrigators who get the benefit of our water at least pay for their needed system upgrades?  Other businesses do.  The bottom line is that irrigators are a very successful special interest group.

According to a recent investigative series by The Oregonian, “Polluted by Money”, by many measures Oregon is among the most corrupt states in the nation.  In fact, more money is given to Oregon state legislators on a per capita basis than any other state.  We’re #1!  Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of this money is not coming from the public, it comes from corporations and special interests.  Contributions from the farm lobby are the 6th largest in the nation while the US Department of Agriculture says Oregon is only #28 in the nation in terms of agriculture production.

Today, Oregon is facing a water crisis.  We have been in an extended period of drought that is going to get worse as our climate continues to heat.  According to the US Drought Monitor the recent series of storms have improved the situation from extreme to moderate drought but it will take much more precipitation to return moisture to the ground and replenish our aquifers.  At the same time, our growing population will require more and more water.

Oregon’s water supplies have been over appropriated and mismanaged for decades, it is now time to tackle this issue with urgency before it becomes a crisis.  We need to fundamentally reform antiquated laws, regulations, and practices.

  • Charge for water. Currently, water is diverted from rivers and lakes or pumped from the ground with no remuneration to the public.  “Free” water leads to inefficient use.  Charging a fair market rate would eliminate countless wasteful practices and drive conservation via upgraded delivery systems all the way through to the end point.  Separate rates could be established based on use.  For example, the lowest rates would be for municipal use and high value agriculture, then industrial, then low value agriculture / hobby farming.  Proceeds would be used for a range of conservation initiatives along with aquatic habitat restoration.
  • Measure water use. Shockingly, this is not done today leading to massive over use.  Water extracted from lakes, rivers, or via groundwater pumping must be measured and metered.  Water use must be measured at the system and individual water right holder level.  Costs to implement metering must be borne by whomever derives benefit from the water.
  • Define beneficial use and waste. Today, a water right holder can maintain that right by “beneficially” using water without “waste”, but these terms are not well defined.  Beneficial use can be satisfied by simply watering the ground.  Today, watering rocks and weeds is of equal value to growing food, providing drinking water, or keeping rivers healthy.  Beneficial use and waste must be defined in a more granular fashion.  There should be a correlation between the cost of water, amount of water, and its use – and waste cannot be tolerated.
  • Provide water to ecosystems. Water right holders should be able to surrender their right and return water to rivers, lakes, and aquifers rather than to other users regardless of irrigation district policies currently blocking this.  Returned water should first be allocated in-stream, clearly ecosystems should have the most senior water rights.  Once minimum ecosystem needs are met, water can then be allocated to junior right holders.

Without fundamental reform of Oregon’s water laws, regulations, and practices, lack of water will impact us all in the foreseeable future.  We can avoid our looming water security crisis by using simple market economics.  The recently concluded Basin Study Work Group showed that on-farm conservation and efficiency approaches driven by economic self-interest can be implemented more quickly, at far less cost, and with significantly more environmental benefit than massive taxpayer-subsidized infrastructure projects.

Change can happen.  It must or we will all suffer as the planet heats and our population grows.