The sentiments expressed in an Aug. 27 letter, “Water usage must change to help the Deschutes River,” resonate deeply with me. Like the author, I take every opportunity to enjoy the natural wonders and recreational opportunities that we are so fortunate to have at our Central Oregon doorsteps. I share his concern about the future of the Deschutes River basin. But my relationship with our watershed has another dimension.
The farm where I live and work in Jefferson County — where I grew up and where my wife and I are raising our two young sons — would not exist if we lost access to water for irrigation from the Deschutes and Crooked rivers. Instead of a lush, productive farm supporting multiple families, my land would be dry fuel for another of the region’s infamous wildfires. Instead of a vibrant, multicultural community, my hometown of Madras, and so many other small towns that rely on family farms and ranches, would be a dusty relic of a past era.
A richer, more complete perspective on how to improve the Deschutes River basin and preserve Central Oregon communities and lifestyles must account for production agriculture’s contribution to the economy and landscape. Moreover, responsible conservationists must acknowledge the active role of agriculture in the stewardship of our natural resources.
As a farmer, I consider it a privilege to have access to natural resources that allow me to make a living on the land. As a result, I also consider it my duty to responsibly steward those resources for the continued viability of the environment and our communities. I’m not alone in this view. Farmers throughout Central Oregon are responding to the incentive to improve efficiency and conserve scarce water.
For example, flood irrigation is becoming more rare while high efficiency overhead sprinkler and drip irrigation is now the norm. Today, the majority of nearly 5,000 acres of hybrid carrot seed — which contributes over $20 million to our local economy — is farmed with sophisticated drip irrigation systems that use a fraction of the water. In addition, many farmers are investing in innovative ways to optimize water and energy use, such as installing variable frequency drive pumps and water monitoring systems.
Farmers aren’t focused only on their own land either. Collectively, the irrigation districts that deliver water to over 150,000 acres of farmland in the Deschutes basin have implemented nearly 90 conservation and restoration projects aimed at reducing demand for irrigation water, improving efficiency and benefiting fish and wildlife habitat.
Those projects have cost over $75 million and have permanently returned over 50,000 acre-feet of water per year to the Deschutes River. Much of that cost comes at the expense of farmers through our irrigation user fees.
Fortunately, farmers and ranchers are not alone in this effort. The Deschutes Basin Board of Control, which comprises all eight local irrigation districts, is engaged in a multiyear effort to identify and implement a comprehensive, long-term plan aimed at conserving water and improving habitat for wildlife, including steelhead, bull trout and the Oregon spotted frog. Twenty outside stakeholder groups have joined this effort, including local, state and federal agencies, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Deschutes River Conservancy, Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, Trout Unlimited and many others.
There is work ahead to continue improving our collective management of water in the Deschutes basin, but the progress already achieved is promising. The collaborative efforts underway to identify and implement constructive solutions will benefit us all.
So, how can you contribute? Educate yourself. Visit a farm and learn more about how farmers, ranchers and irrigation districts are working to sustainably manage water supplies. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover how sophisticated irrigated agriculture is becoming, how deeply we care about the Deschutes River and how committed we are to making Central Oregon a better place for future generations.
— Kevin L. Richards lives in Madras.