A push for water sharing in Oregon

Sep 24, 2021  | 4 min  | Ep4706

  One could argue weather extremes of temperatures and precipitation appear to be more commonplace. Take the West for example, much of this region is in its third year of drought. 

Areas that depend on decades-old water rights to determine who has claim to the resource are running hot as continued drought has warmed up the discussion on if changes are needed. 

John Torpy reports on the battle in Oregon. 

Along the Deschutes River in east of Portland, Oregon, the consequences of the strict hierarchy dictated by the American West's arcane water law, "first in time, first in right" is punishing some farmers and their drought stricken crops.
Phil Fine, Oregon Farmer: "Basically we're in a severe drought. The natural flow in the Deschutes right now is less than anybody's ever seen it. Now, keep in mind we said that a month ago, we said that two months ago, we said that two weeks ago. It keeps going down,"
      
      As catastrophic drought ravages the West, the irrigation districts with water claims dating back more than a century only have had to modestly reduce water use while districts just up the road with more recent claims have been cut off entirely.
Phil Fine, Oregon Farmer: "So North Unit Irrigation District is the junior district in the Deschutes Basin and basically in central Oregon. So what that means is, when it comes to the water, especially natural flow, we're last in line, because we're last in time." 

      To the south, automated sprinklers douse crops and cattle graze on green pastures as water pours through lush farmland, highlighting the water rights inequality for farmers in Oregon.
Matt Lisignoli, Oregon farmer, "This farm is in Central Oregon Irrigation District which has senior water rights. I feel extremely fortunate in my situation because we have had adequate water here. But being able to farm up on the North Unit Irrigation District, I also feel the burn and how it's hurt us up there as far as what we can and can't do. All of my crops up there were diminished as far as the tonnage and yield and quality because we had the water shut off so early,"

      
      After three years of punishing drought, the water rights issue in the Western U.S. has brought new urgency to controversial proposals that would allow farmers with excess water to "lease" some or all of their share to those in need regardless of what irrigation district they are in. Against this backdrop, the nonprofit Deschutes River Conservancy and the Central Oregon Irrigation District, which has some of the most senior water rights, are studying the feasibility of market-driven incentives.
Kate Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, Deschutes River Conservancy, “We just want to be able to move water around more flexibly on a voluntary, incentive basis. So if somebody wants to use less water in Central Oregon Irrigation District, for example, they should have an easier time letting North Unit Irrigation District or other junior districts pick up that water."
      
      The idea of a "water bank" is part of a larger dialogue across the West about how to let the free market play a bigger role in water conservation and water-sharing as climate change fuels drought and farmers from Colorado to California run out of options.
Kate Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, Deschutes River Conservancy: "If we can find those win-win solutions, I believe that the Deschutes can be a model for the West as the West faces increasing drought and scarcity and population growth and all of that."
      
Phil Fine, Oregon Farmer: "The water marketing and leasing is just one of those tools, but it's something we can do now. It doesn't come at a huge cost, it doesn't take a lot of infrastructure, and it's something we can do now. And in North Unit especially, if we don't do something soon, we can't keep going on like this,"
      
      But the idea hasn’t received a warm reception. Over the summer, large-scale efforts to spread water more equitably among agricultural producers in Oregon’s six irrigation districts was met with resistance as senior water rights holders were hesitant to send water to farmers with lower water seniority. 
      For Market to Market, I’m John Torpy.

You can contact John Torpy at torpy@iowapbs.org or @TVTorpy on Twitter

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