For years I have argued that Central Oregon water rights currently favor less productive lands, leave the most economically viable farmlands at risk, and should be redistributed in a way that offers the most societal value. There are ways to do this that would not leave current rights holders “high and dry”. I have also argued that the beneficial use standard must be clearly defined, simply spreading water on the ground so that it is green should not qualify. So, I was pleasantly surprised to see the guest column in the Bend Bulletin this morning from a farmer in Madras making essentially the same arguments.
North Unit Irrigation District around Madras serves the most economically viable farmers in Central Oregon but they have the most junior water rights, meaning that all the other districts get water before they do. So, out of necessity, NUID has become the most efficient in their use of water. Today, however, someone in Central Oregon Irrigation District who uses their allotment for a large water feature and rolling lawn has priority over a farmer in NUID growing potatoes. Worse, if the landowner with the pond wanted to transfer water to the farmer with the potatoes, current water law prevents it. This is simply wrong.
I disagree with the column’s negative comments about “the frog”, after all fish and wildlife should have have water rights as well. In fact, I believe they should have the most senior water rights as they were here long before any of us. Water should be saved through conservation and efficient use, not sacrificing fish, wildlife, and recreation. The column’s author states that NUID’s use of water is three times more efficient than COID’s. Increasing efficiency in all districts would save enough water to satisfy all stakeholder interests.
The problem, of course, is that the law as currently written gives all the water, and the resulting power, to the senior rights holders who have no incentive to efficiently use it.