Do Irrigators Pay for their Water?

I recently had an extended email exchange with someone who objected to my statements that irrigators do not pay for their water, they pay for the delivery of the water. This may be a subtle distinction, but in my mind it is important. It’s analogous to paying for the delivery of a bale of hay, but not the hay itself. I have had several irrigators insist that they do pay for their water, but this is simply not true. So, here’s a more detailed explanation and why I think this is important.

Oregon water law states that we, the public, own all water in the state. Irrigators can be granted the right to use, but not own, some of that water if it is “beneficially” used and without waste. The term beneficial use is not defined but is generally interpreted to mean for the greater benefit of society. In exchange for this, irrigators pay nothing to the state or we taxpayers who own the water. The water is free.

It is certainly true, however, that irrigators have costs associated with the water. I lump these together as delivery costs. They include payments to irrigation districts to maintain canals, implement system improvements, debt service on past water projects, etc. These are real costs, but they are not paying for the water itself.

As a taxpayer, I think this distinction is critical.  Most businesses must bear the costs of their operations, including the delivery of supplies. Not many businesses get a critical raw material for free. At a time when “socialism” is frequently used as a negative epithet, I think it is important to acknowledge the vast subsidies that we taxpayers are providing to irrigators. Furthermore, in many cases, although certainly not all, these subsidies are without a clear societal benefit in return. 

Taxpayer subsidies go far beyond free water. In the past, dams were built with taxpayer subsidies. Current canal piping projects are primarily taxpayer funded. “Farms”, regardless of their output or economic viability, get huge tax breaks. They can get specialized reduced-cost insurance. Etc.

Clearly, we cannot live without food, and farms that do provide beneficial use should be supported. In Central Oregon, however, the number of those is exceeded by hobby farms, those that are not economically viable and are not the primary source of income for their owners. We all have the right to pursue our hobbies, but as a taxpayer and fiscal conservative I do not want to subsidize someone else’s hobby. I believe these irrigators should pay a real market rate to the state for the water they use, transfer their rights to economically viable farms, or return the water to the river.

Radical? Perhaps. But water scarcity is an increasing problem for Central Oregonians and it’s time for new thinking about how we manage this fundamental and irreplaceable resource. The planet is warming and the massive water reservoir otherwise known as snowpack continues to diminish. At the same time the local population is booming. Irrigators take about 90% of the water but a large portion of that is not put to beneficial use. Our water table is dropping. Do we act, or wait for the crisis to be upon us?