Yesterday the Bend Bulletin ran two stories on water that did a good job summarizing this complex topic (read them here and here). I applaud the Bulletin for their continued coverage of local water issues. The articles did contain a couple of factual errors, one of which was corrected today, and an omission that is important for a fuller understanding of the local water issues.
It will take well over a billion dollars, not “tens of millions”, for local irrigation districts to completely pipe leaky canals. Further, the funding for this will not “often” be done with taxpayer’s dollars, these projects will only be accomplished when taxpayers pay most of the cost. Piping is a public subsidy for local landowners that sometimes but not necessarily benefits our environment. I continue to believe that we should get more in exchange for the massive subsidies we are providing, but this train has left the station.
The articles did not touch on water waste. While North Unit Irrigation District gets most of the coverage in the Bulletin, most landowners in the other local irrigation districts are hobby farmers. These are individuals who may have a small farm or a few animals but who are not economically dependent on income from their agricultural activities. In fact, many hobby farmers simply have pretty ponds and big lawns. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that 89% of irrigation district patrons in Deschutes County are hobby farmers.
These hobby farmers have senior water rights and are required to use their water or lose it. A hobby farmer cannot take only what they need. In most cases they cannot use the water they want and return the rest to the river. Our laws and the operating principles of local irrigation districts require water waste.
This waste is buttressed by county tax codes. Land designated as exclusive farm use receives significant tax breaks, even if there is minimal if any agricultural production. If the owner of a EFU lot stops irrigating their land and forfeits their water rights their property tax will increase to a non-EFU rate. Further, they will be liable for 10 years’ worth of back taxes to make up the difference in past tax rates. Shouldn’t the economic incentive be to stop waste?
PS: One of the articles originally made the incorrect statement, “the aquifer makes up a relatively small share of the basin’s water”, which was replaced today. Someone must have pointed out that almost all water in the Upper Deschutes Basin is from the aquifer. All our rivers and lakes come from a full aquifer overflowing and emerging as springs. The Deschutes River emerges from the aquifer. The exception is the Crooked River Basin which has a significant surface runoff component.