H ardly a day goes by without an article in the paper or our online news feeds about drought, declining snowpack, climate change and threats to water supply. Despite this continuous stream of information and the obvious fact that water is one of our most precious resources, we continue to waste enormous quantities of it.
These wasteful practices begin in April every year when the irrigation districts turn on, sucking parts of the Deschutes River nearly dry, and delivering large quantities of water to thousands of properties, many of which do not need the water to support a farming livelihood. And shockingly, once they turn on the water, they don’t turn it off until October irrespective of what their water needs are or how dry the summer might be. For districts with senior water rights around Bend and Redmond, their irrigation practices amount to turning on a garden hose in April and letting it run until October.
In recent weeks, the Bend Bulletin has published a series of articles about major plans by irrigation districts to pipe canals. Sen. Jeff Merkley has worked hard to channel federal resources to these projects. Considering the large seepage losses in these canals, this strategy is potentially a good one.
The problem, however, is that the scale of this infrastructure problem is enormous, and the availability of funding is small. Perhaps more importantly, it is a strategy that does not ask anyone to use water more efficiently, and it asks the public to bear all the cost — hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars to support highly inefficient uses of the water on properties around Bend and Redmond.
Reducing water waste and increasing the efficiency should be the highest priority. This would have the beneficial effect of reducing irrigation demand sufficiently so that the canal piping could be accomplished with smaller, less expensive pipes.
Perhaps an even bigger problem is the water priority system that penalizes our best, most efficient farmers. I advocate for a new water management system that rewards these farmers by improving their access to water generated through conservation.
This will be possible when the thousands of Central Oregon landowners who do not need the water to support themselves financially deploy new irrigation practices that use less water. As these landowners use less, they will be sharing water with the family farms that depend on it for their livelihoods. And when these farmers gain access to more water at their diversion in Bend, they can make more water available in Wickiup Reservoir to increase flows in the river for our native fish and wildlife and the systemic health of our river.
Some people will likely accuse me of wanting to take their water rights away. Not true. I am simply asking irrigators to use water judiciously and responsibly, and if they do so, there will be plenty for everyone. Uninformed landowners fear the “use it or lose it” principle under which they can forfeit their water rights for non-use. But in reality, the system is quite flexible, and there is low risk of losing water rights. The current system allows them to vary the amount of water they use up to and including fallowing the land, as long as they use their water at least once in five years or lease the water rights instream. This allows for a great deal of flexibility in water management, the kind of flexibility that is needed to better serve farmers and the river.
It is time to stop the wasteful practices that have become so normalized in our policies and behaviors. There is too much at stake for our rivers, farmers, and communities. Let’s start viewing water as the precious resource it is and fulfill our responsibilities to be good stewards.
— Tod Heisler is the rivers conservation program director with Central Oregon LandWatch and former executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy