Bipartisan Drought Relief and Water Security Package

I am a frequent critic of local and statewide politician’s lack of attention to water use and scarcity but a small step in the right direction is currently being considered in the legislature.  HB3124, titled the “Bipartisan Drought Relief and Water Security Package”, has elements that would begin to address important issues.  It would direct the Oregon Water Resources Department to “study” drought (really, the legislature needs to direct OWRD to do this?) and include strategies for drinking water, agriculture, fish, and water projects.  Locally, it would allocate $2 million to the Deschutes River Conservancy.  The next public hearing and work session is on April 3rd.  Keep reading for background information, some resources, and my criticisms (of course).

HB3124 has had some local press coverage.  Here is an editorial in the Bulletin and here is a story that provides some context including an outline of how local irrigation districts have not been working well enough together to solve water problems.

Here is a link to the bill on the Oregon state legislature’s website where you can get the full text as well as the ability to register to testify at the meeting on April 3rd.  Here’s a very brief overview of the bill prepared for the legislature and here’s a presentation that provides a longer overview.

While I hope this bill passes, I remain deeply concerned with how funds are currently being spent, and are planned to be spent, in Central Oregon.  This bill could do good things, but it does not address the fundamental issue.

As long as non-economically productive “agriculture” is allocated significant amounts of water, we will not solve the local water crisis.  We continue to work on the margins of the problem.  Canal piping is needed, but it alone will not return enough water to the Upper Deschutes to restore the river’s ecological health.  Canal piping will take decades and hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of taxpayer dollars to implement.  This is welfare for hobby farmers.  Further, canal piping will return no water to the Middle Deschutes which is in worse shape than the Upper Deschutes. 

Some have argued that “water marketing” or “water banking” is a tool that should be employed alongside canal piping.  In short, water banking would allow water rights holders who do not need some or all their water to transfer it to others who do need it.  In theory, this is a good idea.  In practice, it has not worked at scale for a variety of reasons including opposition by Central Oregon Irrigation District, legal structures that make it difficult, lack of willing individual water rights holders, and lack of necessary “lateral” canal piping.  The money in HB3124 that would be directed to the Deschutes River Conservancy is to continue their efforts to implement water banking and begin to overcome some of these issues.  I sincerely hope that the DRC receives funding to implement a meaningful water bank, but the hurdles for success are enormous, and significantly more funds will be required.

We also need to keep in mind that the Middle Deschutes and the Crooked River are in most need of help.  The Crooked essentially dried up in two different places at two different times last year.  Even with recent snowfall, the outlook for 2023 is no better.  Flows in the Middle Deschutes are far lower than the Upper Deschutes when compared to historical levels and they fluctuate even more wildly.  Nothing in HB3124 will help the Crooked or Middle Deschutes in any meaningful time frame.

The only real solution to Central Oregon’s water shortage is to reallocate water rights or to create economic incentives for reallocation like charging for water.  Short of that, we are simply emulating Sisyphus.