Water in Central Oregon is a critical issue for people, fish and wildlife, our recreation and tourism industry, farming, etc. To their credit, the Bend Bulletin frequently publishes opinion pieces on this topic from a variety of individuals, including myself. My submissions are thoroughly fact checked and I often have to provide supporting materials for statements I make. I wish the same journalistic principles had been applied to an opinion piece titled “Collaboration on water is harder than picking a fight”, published on June 7th.
This was an attack on Tod Heisler, who until recently spent 15 years as Executive Director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, written in response to his column published on May 18th. The column accused him of not understanding the value of collaboration between water stakeholders and calls him to “put aside grudges”. This is either ignorance or deliberate misinformation.
As the “About” page on this blog details, I have spent many years in a variety of roles involved in a range of local water issues. I have spent countless hours in meetings with local stakeholders and organizations, including Tod Heisler and others from the DRC, but I have never met “Dan Keppen of Klamath Falls”, the author of the column.
As Tod well knows I have been a frequent critic of him and the DRC. The DRC is the definition of a collaborative organization, simply look at the board of directors listed on their web site. It is composed of local irrigation districts, the Tribes, municipalities, government agencies, NGOs, and public members. Tod worked for 15 years in collaboration with these members in an attempt to find solutions to our serious and looming water issues. Unfortunately, in my opinion, very little progress has been made in spite of massive taxpayer payments. The upper and middle Deschutes both remain on life support. Flows do not follow normal seasonal patterns and regularly reach unnatural highs and lows that wreak havoc on habitat, fish, and wildlife.
The recently concluded and taxpayer funded Basin Study Work Group is an excellent example of this failure of collaboration. After many years of study, a variety of solutions to conserving water were identified, but none have been implemented. There have been no meaningful changes on the part of irrigator operating practices.
The status quo continues: to the extent that the irrigators can obtain government grants, main irrigation canals get piped and a small amount of saved water is returned to local rivers at certain times of year. “Lateral” canals that deliver water from the main canals to the farms are not being upgraded, on farm conservation is not required, various strategies for allowing farms to divert excess water to others are not available, etc. The study showed that these strategies would be quicker to implement, save huge amounts of water, and do so at a far lower cost than main canal piping. To be clear, I support main canal piping in principle, but I am more in favor of returning water to rivers in the most expedient and cost effective fashion.
During the Basin Study Work Group study the head of one irrigation district told me the only thing the DRC should be doing is writing grants to get them more money for main canal piping. This is not indicative of collaboration. By the way, the projected cost to pipe all the main canals approaches one BILLION dollars and will take decades to accomplish. The bulk of those funds will have to come from taxpayers.
The reason for only pursuing main canal piping is easy to understand. In the West, water is power, the irrigators control the water, and they have no interest in giving up one drop more than required. Piping the main canals is the easiest way for irrigators to save just enough water to meet minimum environmental requirements now being forced on them by the Endangered Species Act while modernizing their primary delivery system at mostly taxpayer expense. The is not the best solution for the rest of us.
After 15 years of attempting to find true collaborative solutions Tod has joined Central Oregon Land Watch and is speaking out in an attempt to educate Central Oregonians about real solutions that can be more quickly and affordably implemented. I wish him well.