Water Banking: More Details and Areas of Concern

“Water banking”, also known as “water marketing”, is a well understood method of applying economic principles to water allocation.  In short, it allows water rights holders to sell or lease their water to others who could derive more economic value from it.  After significant effort, the Deschutes River Conservancy is establishing a voluntary pilot program for Central Oregon Irrigation District patrons to temporarily allocate their water to North Unit Irrigation District.  The Bend Bulletin had a good story on this topic last week which was later picked up by Oregon Public Broadcasting.  Here’s additional discussion including some areas that need work.

Water marketing has been successfully used in many places in the West, including locally for a brief period over a decade ago.  The Basin Study Work Group identified water marketing as a far cheaper and faster method of delivering water from low to high value agricultural uses as well as more quickly restoring flows in the Deschutes River when compared to canal piping. 

Water marketing can have undesirable attributes when not carefully implemented, like selling agricultural water to cities and industry to fuel growth.  The fear of this has alienated many in the agricultural community to the concept, but those are implementation details, not fundamental flaws in the concept.  Water markets can operate with controls on who can buy and sell water rights.

I have been supportive of the water marketing concept since first introduced to it and am pleased that COID has finally agreed to move forward with the concept.  There are areas of operational and environmental concern with this “pilot” program, however.

As has been well established, COID is dominated by “hobby farmers”, those who do not make a profit on their farms but who enjoy the lifestyle.  Many of these patrons have stated that they need continued water delivery but at a lower allocation, or that they would like to return part of their water directly to the Deschutes River.  This is not allowed in the pilot program.  100% of a COID patron’s water allocation must be delivered to NUID to participate in the water bank.  Clearly, this will dramatically lower participation in the program.  Additionally, individual patrons must be approved by COID prior to participation.  Unfortunately, the willingness to forgo water is a necessary but not sufficient condition on the part of a COID patron.

These are operational details that can be addressed over time if the barriers to participation are not too high to doom the program at the beginning.  The thornier issue is environmental.  NUID has junior water rights and suffers from inadequate supply during dry years.  COID has senior water rights and almost always has been able to meet delivery targets.  In exchange for access to this senior water and the security it provides, in the winter NUID will release water from Wickiup Reservoir an amount equal to 25% of the amount sent to them from COID.

Clearly this is a good thing, winter flows in the Upper Deschutes River are low but improving and need to continue to do so to meet the requirements of the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan.  The problem is that these releases do nothing to help the most degraded part of the river, the Middle Deschutes below Bend.  In fact, things may get worse.

During irrigation season water is released from Wickiup Reservoir and travels down the Deschutes River until it is withdrawn by a series of canals, the last of which is at North Canal Dam near the northern edge of Bend.  At that point the river is reduced to a mere fraction of its former volume.  This reduction can be quite abrupt with flows dropping by over 90% in a single day, stranding and killing fish and other forms of aquatic life.

With increases in winter flows, issues of sedimentation and abrupt, drastic water level changes in the Middle Deschutes will be amplified.  Higher winter flows will encourage the colonization of more of the river, only to be suddenly dried up every spring.  I am 100% in support of increasing flows in the Upper Deschutes but is it far past time for the irrigation districts to also increase and stabilize flows in the Middle Deschutes.