Central Oregon is experiencing a water crisis. Despite intermittent years of good snow fall, Central Oregon has been in some level of drought for more than 20 years. As we reach the middle of winter we should all be concerned. Local reservoirs and lakes, not just Wickiup, are at historic lows for this time of year. It is unlikely they will fill. Rivers are at extreme lows as well. Domestic wells are being deepened to maintain access to water as the aquifer drops, even wells adjacent to the Deschutes River. Some springs that feed the Metolius River are almost dry. Parts of the most productive farmland in Central Oregon will again be fallowed this year due to lack of water. Fish and wildlife will suffer the most.
Everything that brought people to Central Oregon was based on long, cold winters, deep snowfall in the Cascades, and cool, short summers that slowly released the abundant moisture in the snow, even into August. In the eastern Cascades, that water seeped into porous lava beds, emerging as springs that created the Deschutes, Metolius, Fall, and other streams and rivers. Over a century ago, the Deschutes River was mostly diverted from Bend onto the high desert to entice settlers in wagon trains with promises of abundant water and cheap land.
Things are dramatically different today. A heating planet is a drier planet as rates of evaporation increase. Weather patterns have changed, and snow is less abundant. We are no longer pioneers clearing rocks for subsistence farms and irrigation canals. Our population has exploded with no end in sight including a massive new destination resort that is under construction. Nevertheless, our water is still controlled by the allocations and laws created over 100 years ago.
There are efforts underway to make improvements, such as canal piping and the pilot water bank, but they will not make a material difference for many years. It is estimated that it will take decades of effort and over one billion dollars of mostly taxpayer money to fully pipe the leaky canals dug by settlers. This is time that the agricultural economy does not have. Nor do the rest of us.
Changes could be made that would have greater and more timely impact. Oregonians own the water, we could reallocate it to current best use. Agricultural users of water currently pay a fee to their irrigation district for the delivery of the water, but not for water itself. Domestic well owners also do not pay for water and usage is not monitored. Measuring and charging for water would quickly generate dramatic changes in water allocation and consumption.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, many farms in Central Oregon are economically unproductive. Commonly called “hobby farms”, their water rights, or the entire farm, could be purchased, and the water returned to the river where fish, wildlife, and the aquifer would benefit. Why not use taxpayer funds for this?
The earth is heating more quickly than forecasted by even the most pessimistic models. No one knows what the future will bring, but it seems prudent to assume that change will continue on the current trajectory. What will Central Oregon look like after another 5 to 10 years of drought? Should we plan for that? Should we feel a sense of urgency? Do we have any collective responsibility?
We are resistant to acknowledging what is happening as well as taking the steps necessary to ensure a secure water future in a timely manner. Change is difficult. Laws will need to be rewritten. Lives will be disrupted. Without a significant course correction, however, the only thing we have is hope that the weather changes and we experience many years of long, cold winters, deep snowfall, and cool summers that slowly release water that seeps into our parched ground and refills our aquifers, lakes, and rivers. Unfortunately, hope is not a plan.