I think about the upper Deschutes from two vantage points. One is what’s practical. Oregon Water Law is well established and operating within its parameters is most likely to produce results in the short term. This is the operating framework of the Basin Study Work Group. The other vantage point is moral. How can a publicly owned resource, the upper Deschutes River, be dewatered by a small group of irrigators who harm our environment and provide limited public good, while being subsidized by taxpayers, even if this is codified by laws established over one hundred years ago?
I was recently made aware of the 2012 Department of Agriculture Census of Deschutes County. (The 2017 survey will not be released until next year.) It has some revealing statistics. It is important to note that this report is for Deschutes County, not Jefferson County where there are numerous large, economically viable farms.
- In 2012 there were 1,283 farms in Deschutes County. Over 75% of these were under 50 acres. (1)
- The average farm received $5,488 (2) in government subsidies while only producing $16,033 in sales. In fact, 78% of all farms produced less than $10,000 in sales.
- In terms of agricultural products sold, Deschutes County ranked 32 out of 36 counties in the state.
- The sales from an average farm did not cover the costs of operation. The average farm lost $11,538.
- The majority of farmers derived their income principally from another occupation.
In short, Deschutes County is dominated by hobby farmers, those who enjoy the farming lifestyle, not those who rely on it for their livelihood or provide a societal benefit in a viable fashion. Clearly, this is their right. As someone who spent part of my childhood raising goats, chickens, and growing most of the vegetables we consumed, I get it. There’s something deeply rewarding about being connect to your land and seeing the fruits of your labor.
Nevertheless, there is a societal issue that is not being addressed. Is it morally defensible to harm a river, the fish and wildlife that depend upon it, and the citizens from throughout the state who want to recreate near and on it, for the benefit of a small number of people who are being subsidized in the pursuit of their hobby? Perhaps not, but Oregon Water Law currently defends them.
This larger issue is outside the scope of the Basin Study Work Group but is certainly worthy of consideration. Both state and federal laws would have to be modified in order to address the fundamental issue. Unfortunately, no one in our state government or our federal representatives (Walden, Wyden, and Merkley) is willing to take up this cause. The mythos of the American farmer is too strong in our culture, regardless of the facts on the ground in Deschutes County.
(1) The On-Farm Water Conservation Report prepared as part of the BSWG effort states that the average farm in the Central Oregon Irrigation District is 11 acres.
(2) I am not sure what the $5,488 figure includes. Undoubtedly it has various tax benefits, but does it also include past taxpayer subsidies canal piping? It certainly does not include the current requests for taxpayer financing of hundreds of millions of dollars for piping.