Next week the City Club of Central Oregon will host a discussion on the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan. Initially billed as a debate between Tod Heisler of Central Oregon Land Watch and a representative from the irrigation districts it now features Bridget Moran of the US Fish & Wildlife Service standing in for the irrigators. I guess none of them wanted to stand up for their own plan. I’m not sure what this debate will be about now. What I do know is that this discussion will be fundamentally unsatisfying regardless of who is on the stage.
There has been public discussion of water disputes in Central Oregon for decades. The debaters have changed, but the topic has remained the same: what is the best use of this limited resource?
Those of us who have been closely following this issue know the positions. The irrigators state that over the coming decades they will gladly return some water to the upper Deschutes during the winter but their modernization efforts are too expensive to be self-funded and need to be largely subsidized by taxpayers. They will need almost a billion dollars to achieve their plans. They express concern for the river and state they are doing the best they can given a range of legal, cultural, and fiscal constraints. They also take credit for recent modest improvements in flows in the river above Bend.
Conservation groups believe that the irrigators are returning too little water to the river, taking too long to do it, and doing so in an overly expensive manner. They point out that the Basin Study Work Group showed that cheaper, potentially faster and more efficient tactics exist.
The debate is about what sections of canal to pipe first and how to prioritize main canal piping versus on-farm efficiencies and inter-district transfers. No one, however, is talking about a fundamental restructuring of water policy in Central Oregon.
On April 28, 1959, Robert Chandler, the editor and publisher of The Bend Bulletin wrote an editorial stating that agriculture in Central Oregon wastes too much water and is not the most economically valuable use of it. The claim was made that since the installation of the Wickiup and Crane Prairie Dams the economy and local “way of life” had changed, including increased population and reliance on tourism. Mr. Chandler worried then about a community-wide fight over the use of water.
Unfortunately, very little has changed in the past 60 years in the allocation of the public’s water while our “way of life” has dramatically evolved. While agriculture continues to be the backbone of some local communities, others have little reliance on it today. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the vast majority of farms in Deschutes County are economically untenable. These are “hobby farms” that exist for the enjoyment of their owners.
Clearly, everyone has a right to pursue their own happiness, including owning a hobby farm. But do we taxpayers need to bear the burden of their modernization costs? And what about the health of the entire Deschutes? Current plans for improvement in river flows will be contained to the Deschutes River above Bend. The river below Bend will continue to be drained during irrigation season. With no endangered species left to protect in this section there is no legal requirement for improvement and no plans for it.
Our climate is clearly heating. Wickiup Reservoir will not fill again this winter. Much of Oregon, including Central Oregon, has been in a state of drought for the past 20 years, ranging from “abnormally dry” to “extreme”. According to the National Weather and Climate Center, as of March 11 our local snow pack is at 81% of normal. According to the US Drought Monitor, the middle of Oregon from Washington to California is currently in a moderate drought. At the same time our population is booming and aquifers are decreasing.
The merits of canal piping and on-farm efficiency are undeniable, but they are expensive and will take decades to provide marginal benefit to the upper Deschutes and no benefit to the middle Deschutes. Isn’t it time to look at the bigger picture?
Oregon water laws were written over 100 years ago at a time when the state was being settled. Are these laws still appropriate? What is the most beneficial use of the public’s water today? Clearly, agriculture plays a role, but should it be 90% of water use? How can we shift the discussion to making equitable, fundamental changes rather than merely quibbling about which tactic is best for spending massive amounts of taxpayer dollars to achieve minor benefit over decades?
Isn’t it time to plan for the next 100 years? It can be done. Currently, it seems we are simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.