Drought-haves, have-nots are testing how to share water in the West


MADRAS, Ore. (AP) – Phil Fine stands in a parched field and watches a harvester gnaw through his crop of carrot seeds, spitting clouds of dust in its wake. Cracked earth lines empty the irrigation canals, and dust devils and tumbleweed punctuate a landscape in shades of brown.

Across an invisible line separating the Fine irrigation district from the next, it’s another world. Automated sprinklers whistle as they water crops, livestock munch on green grass, and water boils through lush green farmland.

In this strip of central Oregon, where six irrigation districts rest on the Deschutes River, the consequences of the strict hierarchy dictated by the obscure water law of the American West – “first in time, first on the right ”- are inscribed on the earth. As drought ravages the West, districts with centuries-old water claims are on the front lines for the scarce resource while others nearby with more recent claims are already depleted.

“It’s like the Wizard of Oz. … It’s shocking the difference, ”said Matt Lisignoli, a farmer who got nearly five times more water on his land in one irrigation district than on fields in another.

“I’ve learned more about water in the past two months than over the past 20 years because it’s always been there,” he said. “You don’t know until you hit a dead end.”

The stark contrast between the haves and have-nots two hours southeast of Portland has brought new urgency to water-sharing efforts. Proposals to create “water banks” or “water markets” would allow farmers with excess supplies to rent it out to those in need. The idea is part of a discussion about letting the free market play a bigger role in water conservation, as man-made climate change fuels drought and farmers run out of options.

However, the concept is fraught with risks and resistances. Larger-scale efforts to distribute water more equitably have been uneven. Along the Deschutes River, where every drop is counted, many farmers fear they will not get them back if they lease their water rights, even temporarily.

“Whether this is feasible or not is a very local question,” said Brett Bovee of WestWater Research, a consultancy for water market research.

Many Western water markets compensate farmers for diverting water to wildlife and towns rather than fields. Far fewer avenues provide water to farmers, and the biggest challenge is moving it between irrigation districts, said Scott Revell, director of Roza Irrigation District in Yakima Valley, in the Washington State.

Districts oversee water deliveries to customers and often operate as fiefdoms, each with water claims and history. Obsolete infrastructure and bureaucracy – often compounded by rigid state laws – make water transfers difficult, even between cooperating districts.

In central Oregon, for example, Lisignoli wanted to use the irrigation of his farmland in a district with higher water rights and transfer it to the withered crops that he grows in a neighboring district with lesser rights.

Lisignoli’s request had to be approved by both districts and the Oregon water agency, which required an 11-day public notice period, he said.

Desperate, he bought emergency water from a vineyard for $ 2,700, but the water in that district ran out last month. He hasn’t watered 16 acres of pumpkins in weeks and hopes they will survive the Halloween sales.

“It was a futile effort,” he said. “But I hope this shows the flaws in the system.”

California, on the other hand, has one of the most flexible water markets in the West, allowing irrigation districts to get water to where it is most needed. After a major drought in the 1970s, lawmakers eased transfers and emphasized that leasing water would not jeopardize rights, said Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.

Once a farmer approves a transfer, its renewal is expedited and, in many cases, the water can keep up with demand without a lengthy environmental review, she said.

In central Oregon, water sharing is an exciting topic.

The 960 farmers in the Northern Unit Irrigation District, which has the lowest water rights in the region, grow 60% of the world’s carrot seed, either for carrot growers or seed packets.

Districts with higher rights, on the other hand, tend towards hobby farms with llamas and alpacas, pasture for cattle and fields of hay. These farmers had to cut back for the first time, but still receive 55% of their water.

The water disparity is compounded by efforts to preserve the federally protected Oregon Spotted Frog. A habitat conservation plan requires the Northern Unit District to release water for the frog from its storage tank for three decades.

This reservoir, which is filled by the Deschutes River, is nearly empty, with once submerged tree stumps protruding from cracked mud flats.

Other irrigation districts have also given up on water for the frog, but “North Unit has definitely had the end of the stick,” said chief executive Josh Bailey. “It made our situation worse as a junior water rights holder …

The nonprofit Deschutes River Conservancy and the Central Oregon Irrigation District, which holds superior water rights, are investigating a water bank. It would provide financial incentives to farmers with additional water to rent it to needy irrigation districts or return it to the river to boost its flows.

The coalition could launch a pilot project next year. A recent study indicates that about 164,000 acre-feet of water can be released using tariff incentives, said Kate Fitzpatrick, executive director of conservation. One acre-foot of water is enough to cover a football field that is one foot (one-third of a meter) deep.

Everyone wants to avoid a crisis like in the Klamath River Basin, an area on the Oregon-California border locked in a decades-long struggle for water where household wells are drying up.

“We’re trying to find ways to make water move more flexibly,” Fitzpatrick said. “If we can find these win-win solutions, I think the Deschutes can be a role model for the West as the West faces increasing drought and scarcity and population growth.

Some water customers are eager to try it; others are suspicious.

Oregon law requires a water rights holder to use up or lose their share every five years. Some fear that without guarantees, investors could seize these rights or lose them if they join a water bank.

The state relaxed some rules this summer amid a drought-related emergency, but many say more reforms are needed to facilitate sharing and expand ways to maintain water rights.

An informal appeal this summer to help those with less water, for example, failed when only a handful of water rights holders stepped forward, said Shon Rae, deputy general manager of the Irrigation District of the central Oregon.

“At the end of the day, the paperwork, the cost and the time it took to do it just weren’t going to work,” she said. “People would be interested in doing it if it was easier. Rules and laws are one of the biggest obstacles.

Champions of water markets recognize that the idea cannot be the only answer and that more incentives are needed to reduce water use and modernize aging infrastructure.

Along the Deschutes River, plans include replacing irrigation canals with pipes to reduce leaks and pumping water from a massive lake to struggling farmers – two long-term projects.

“What we’re trying to do is participate in these big projects and be drought tolerant. But marketing and leasing the water is… something we can do now, ”said Fine, the carrot seed grower. “And if we don’t do something soon, we can’t go on like this. People are going to go bankrupt.”


Peterson reported from Denver. The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage visit https://apnews.com/hub/environment and drought coverage visit https://apnews.com/hub/droughts


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