Community members contact me every week about land use applications that could expand low density residential development in our rural high desert landscape. One of the major reasons people give for opposing these applications is the increased demand that new development will place on our local aquifers and rivers.
At first glance, adding demand on local water supplies during a drought may seem silly. But when we look at water usage in the upper Deschutes Basin, the key opportunities to improve drought resiliency and ensure that we have enough water for our rivers and creeks, our farms, and our homes lie within agriculture, not through shutting down residential development. In addition, Oregon land use law provides limited tools to deny development in the upper Deschutes Basin based on water supply considerations.
All of the current municipal, domestic, and residential use of water in the upper Deschutes Basin adds up to about 45,000 acre feet per year. By contrast, in an average year, total water use for agriculture is close to 725,000 acre feet. Agriculture withdraws 16 times more water from our rivers and aquifers than all the homes in the basin and there are massive opportunities to conserve water within agriculture in order to restore flow in our rivers and creeks and to improve supply reliability for farmers with marginal (less senior) water rights.
Standing at any major irrigation canal diversion point on the Deschutes between Lava Island Falls and the Riverhouse you will see enough water entering that canal to supply tens of thousands of homes. With investments in canal piping and on-farm efficiency, we could save hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water per year. For example, Central Oregon Irrigation District recently completed piping 7.9 miles of the Pilot Butte Canal near Smith Rock. This infrastructure upgrade will save 10,000 acre feet per year — at least a third of total annual residential water supply use in Deschutes County. Completing on-farm efficiency projects on farms served by that segment of the Pilot Butte Canal could save another 10,000 acre feet of water per year, all while keeping the water received by farmers’ crops effectively the same.
To be clear, I don’t think anyone should be wasting water and new development can have localized groundwater impacts. We should grow and develop in ways that are more water smart, including minimizing irrigated lawns and landscaping. But instead of focusing on the water supply impacts of low density development, I believe we should be pressing for water conservation in agriculture and using other conservation arguments to oppose sprawl-like growth.
Low density development in the rural County can reduce the quality and connectivity of wildlife habitat, spoil the scenic vistas that we cherish, crowd existing rural residences, and diminish the capacity of our high desert landscape to sequester carbon. Poorly planned growth also snarls our roads with more traffic and produces more climate change inducing emissions. These are the reasons we should fight sprawl and support the kind of conservation-oriented, transportation-smart growth that Oregon’s state land use system already encourages.
What should we do to guard against sprawl in Deschutes County? Scrutinize applications for comprehensive plan amendments and zone changes that move land out of agricultural use to residential. Ask the state to add a High Desert Goal to the land use planning system so we don’t have to try to preserve sage steppe lands under agricultural goals. Revise the county’s destination resort overlay map, identifying where new destination resorts are and are not allowed. Adopt new wildlife inventories providing new protections to key habitat areas for deer, elk, and eagles. Engage in our comprehensive plan update to tell the county how to grow well. You can learn more about any of these policy efforts by speaking with the County Community Development Department or Planning Commission. Tell your County Commissioners what you think.
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Phil Chang is one of three Deschutes County Commissioners and one of the tri-Chairs of the Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative. All views expressed in this guest column are his own.
The city is mulling a transportation utility fee, a seasonal fuel tax and/or a targeted sales tax on food and beverage sales to cover transportaiton costs, repairs. You can respond directly to the city at firstname.lastname@example.org. See our editorial at https://bendbulletin.us/3n5cACr
Overall sounds good. I would just add that we need to grow outward and more densely as lowering real estate prices would go a long ways to building affordable housing.
I agree with Commissioner Chang and would like to add one thing. If agriculture is to make changes to their methods, shouldn't we encourage this with incentives to the farmers and/or ranchers? It would benefit everyone and in the long run wouldn't it be cheaper?
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