The Bulletin recently covered the plight of some farmers with junior water rights getting only 40% of their traditional water deliveries while senior water rights holders continue to get their full allotment.
Beginning in the late 1800s settlers were lured by developers to Central Oregon with sometimes dubious promises of cheap land, good soil and weather, and plentiful water. Dreams of fertile farms helped bring the wagon trains. The first to arrive and organize were given the most senior water rights and every right after that was more junior. North Unit Irrigation District around Madras has the most productive farmland but the most junior rights. While they have been here the longest, fish and wildlife have the most junior water rights of all.
Contrary to popular belief, a water right is not water ownership. We, the public, own the water. A right allows an irrigator water provided its use is “beneficial.” Beneficial use is not well defined, but it was commonly understood to mean economically productive; something that would help the region grow. It is also important to know that the water is free. Irrigators commonly do not understand this, but they are charged by their irrigation district for the delivery of the water, not the water itself. We, the public owners of the water, get nothing.
Today, 88% of all water rights in the Upper Deschutes Basin are held by irrigators, 2% by municipalities, and the rest is in streams and rivers. While there are many economically viable farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, most Deschutes County water right holders are small with higher costs than income, aka “hobby farmers.” If you look around Deschutes County, you will see many acres of well-watered fields, perhaps with a few horses or cows.
Water rights are protected by law, and everyone should be able to pursue their hobby of choice. But what if an irrigator wanted to give up some water? Until this extreme drought year this was limited by the districts, and additional water is not being allowed to go instream.
A partial solution would be to establish a well-functioning water market, where water can be freely bought and sold while protecting water rights, land use designations and tax breaks. Water markets have been shown to work in other states and would work here as well. In fact, the Deschutes River Conservancy runs a limited water leasing program, which provides a small, but important, amount of flow into local rivers at some times of the year. (55 CFS this year spread over the entire basin.) There also used to be a water bank that facilitated permanent transfers to rivers and cities. This program was shut down by the districts. A water market would be a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. The solution to our water problems would be to also charge irrigators for their water.
Junior water rights holders in North Unit Irrigation District have become highly efficient in their use of water out of necessity. Similar incentives do not exist elsewhere. For example, 25% of Central Oregon Irrigation District still uses flood irrigation, the most inefficient form of irrigation. Charging for water would quickly fix this.
Charging for water would also help direct water to economically viable uses, the original intent of granting rights. Additionally, raised funds could be used to buy water to permanently put back into rivers and streams, along with other ecological restoration activities, helping to reverse 100+ years of damage from often wasteful irrigation practices.
This is a radical idea, one that would require changes in our laws. In the face of a heating planet and a booming population, however, we need to think of radical solutions or the plight of North Unit farmers will be visited on the rest of us. Neither planned canal piping, nor water conservation by homeowners, is enough to solve our worsening water problem.