A fight over water rights derailed the Bend City Council’s goal of having a policy in place by the end of the year to annex more than 2,380 acres of land outside city limits.

Councilors aimed to pass the annexation policy by the end of 2017, but clashes over a short section detailing when and how property owners give up their irrigation water rights delayed a final vote. The City Council is now expected to take a final vote Wednesday, and the policy won’t take effect until early February.

Several councilors, including Councilor Nathan Boddie, stressed that the city delivers water much more efficiently than irrigation districts, many of which are trying to upgrade century-old canals that lose a lot of water before it reaches its destination.

“We need to tighten this up so we efficiently use a limited resource, which is water in the desert,” Boddie said. “I don’t think this precludes anyone applying for this exemption, but I think we should make it a rare event, not a common event that we have irrigated urban land.”

The final language of the city policy specifies that annexed property must be contiguous to the existing city limits, and, with few exceptions, it must be able to be served by city roads, water and sewer infrastructure. As part of annexation, property owners have to give up their irrigation rights and instead obtain water from the city or the two other water providers in Bend, Avion Water and Roats Water System.

In limited instances, the City Council could allow a landowner to continue using irrigation district water if the owner proves it would be more efficient, more sustainable or cost taxpayers less than using municipal water. Requiring property owners to prove they deserve an exception is a good idea, Councilor Barb Campbell said.

“I think we need to make it clear that this is a property owner who is asking us to make an exception for them,” she said. “The burden should be on them to make their case for that exception.”

For the most part, property owners won’t want to use irrigation water, said Bend Mayor Casey Roats, one of two councilors who voted against the language Boddie proposed. Roats, who works as vice president of his family’s water company, pointed out that he has a lot of experience dealing with water issues in Bend.

“The chances that anybody is going to put any irrigation water to use anywhere in the expansion area is really quite slim. More often than not, it will never get used on an individual residential lot,” he said. “In practical terms, it will not irrigate a commercial property.”

The Bend Park & Recreation District wants to keep its irrigation rights at Pine Nursery Community Park, a 159-acre park just outside existing city limits in the northeastern part of town. The park already includes several softball and soccer fields, and the park district is working with Bend FC Timbers, a youth soccer organization, to turn 8 more acres of the park into an athletic complex.

Pine Nursery Community Park already has its sprinklers and pipes set up with the water it receives from the Swalley Irrigation District, said Michelle Healy, Planning and Park Services director. If the park district had to give up its irrigation water rights when the park’s annexed into the city of Bend, it would have to spend more tax money to connect that irrigation system to the city’s water, she said.

Additionally, the city’s water is treated to be safe to drink, regardless of whether it’s used for irrigation or drinking. Irrigation district water is not, meaning costs are generally lower than the park district would pay to the city, Healy said.

“For larger-scale irrigation, the treated water is just more expensive to use,” she said.

Maintaining irrigation rights typically carries value with it, said Ryan Houston, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council. Oregon’s irrigation water is all publicly owned, but people have the right to use it as long as they’re not wasting it. Outside of cities, that’s handled by irrigation district water rights.

The distribution of irrigation district water is based on seniority, meaning that in dry seasons, the property that’s held a water right the longest has first dibs on water. Water rights are included when property sells, but when land is annexed by cities, that water right typically reverts back to the irrigation district.

“Generally speaking, most folks start from the point that if I have water I’m going to hold on to it,” Houston said.

Despite its name, irrigation water is used for more than just crops — allowed uses also include things like recreation and ponds. That creates challenges when deciding whether to allow it in cities, which may have ballparks and golf courses even if they don’t have farmland.

Other landowners stressed the importance of maintaining irrigation rights up until land is ready to be developed. Jody Ward, president of J.L. Ward Co., owns a 250-acre thumb-shaped plot in the expansion area southeast of where China Hat Road meets U.S. Highway 97. Until it’s developed, she told the City Council the company needs to be able to keep using irrigation water to maintain the land.

“It’s going to be years and years and years before that is developed, and we worked very hard for the last 50 years keeping that clean and safe, trimming trees and mowing brush and keeping it as fire-safe as possible,” she said. “We have 150 acres of water rights, and it was very concerning to us to think that when we annexed that we would be putting that in jeopardy and no longer have a fire-safe property.”

A delay in approving the annexation policy could affect construction of a new elementary school in north Bend. Bend-La Pine Schools intends to open a still-unnamed $33 million elementary at the intersection of O.B. Riley and Cooley roads in time for classes to start in fall 2019, but because the land isn’t yet in city limits, it needs to have an annexation permit approved along with all the regular construction permits.

The school district hopes to have permits submitted by April 1, Bend Planning Manager Colin Stephens told the City Council, and doing so would require the council to approve the school’s annexation by the end of February so it would take effect by the end of March.

Because of the delay in approving an annexation policy, councilors may have to unanimously vote to annex the school district property with an emergency clause so the district can meet its timeline, he said.

Central Oregon Irrigation District General Manager Craig Horrell did not return phone messages seeking comment.

—  Reporter: 541-633-2160; jshumway@bendbulletin.com