The US Department of Agriculture performs periodic nationwide surveys of agriculture that are broken down to the county level. The latest survey was released in April with data as of 2017. It clearly shows that most irrigators in Deschutes County are not “farmers” in any traditional sense of word.
This detailed report says that there are 1,484 farms in Deschutes County, 1,269 are irrigated. Half of these farms are under 11 acres in size. Only 216 are over 50 acres. 685 of the farms have annual sales of less than $2,500. The average farm had losses of -$12,866. Irrigators currently take 90% of the water in the upper Deschutes but in Deschutes County farming is often a lifestyle choice or hobby, not the viable production of agricultural products.
Everyone has a right to buy land and purse their hobby, but this data clearly shows that viewing water distribution through the lens of fish vs. farms is deceptive at best. It is also important to know that many of these landowners would gladly give up their water, or at least greatly reduce their allotment, if they could. Irrigation districts simply do not allow this.
Per Oregon law, all water is owned by the public. Irrigators have the right to “beneficially” use that water, for the benefit of the public. The USDA survey raises some basic questions about water use. Why should hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars be spent to subsidize someone’s hobby as required in the Habitat Conservation Plan currently out for public comment?
Today, Deschutes County has a lifestyle economy, our incredible growth is due to the quality of life that can be found here. Clean, ample water in our rivers and creeks is an important element of that lifestyle.
To be clear, I am not advocating that water be withheld from any farm, but it is past time that water be distributed in a way that is beneficial to the public in a modern sense, not based on 100 year old laws written when Central Oregon was first being settled. The Basin Study Work Group identified ways could be more quickly accomplished, at lower cost, than proposed by irrigation districts in the Habitat Conservation Plan.