By Gail Snyder

I want to plant willows on the banks of the Upper Deschutes River, and I want to do it side-by-side with the general managers of irrigation districts in Central Oregon.

We know the Deschutes River is in trouble. That’s not the question. The status of now-endangered species, including several fish species and the spotted frog, is a reflection of the toll that altering the river’s natural hydrology has taken on the ecosystem.

The question isn’t, “How do we fix the problem?” We have the know-how and the tools available to solve the river flow issues. And we can do this while still maintaining vibrant irrigated agriculture in Central Oregon, and providing farmers with the water security that they need in order to plan and grow their crops.

The real question is, “Will we do it?”

Irrigation began in Central Oregon more than 100 years ago. Both the technology and laws governing it reflect a different era. While we might appreciate the Model T Ford for its role in bringing us the ever-evolving cars of today, we all know and accept that automobile technology has changed. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine returning to days of the telegraph or even multi-party phone lines when we can carry our own personal cellphones around in our pockets.

Yet many irrigation districts are still using leaky canals and ditches, dug by hand and horse through porous lava a century ago.

Thanks to the work of many parties, including the Deschutes River Conservancy, the Farmers Conservation Alliance, irrigation districts in Central Oregon, Sen. Jeff Merkley, and many other organizations, government agencies, and individuals, we have the chance today to restore the Deschutes River. We can and must do this in partnership with the irrigation districts.

To restore the river to a healthy ecological condition, we need to employ all of the tools available to us, from irrigation modernization (Yes, piping those leaky canals, because at the end of the day, a healthy river is better habitat than seasonal canals.), to on-farm efficiencies, market tools, and intra- and inter-district policies that allow water to be shared between irrigation districts and with the river.

Modernizing the irrigation districts’ infrastructure is a crucial part of the Habitat Conservation Plan being developed to protect species including bull trout, summer steelhead trout, chinook salmon and the Oregon spotted frog.

I am a river advocate. But this I know — for many and varied reasons, we must take this journey of healing our river together, arm-in-arm with the irrigation districts.

We don’t have to agree on everything; we won’t agree on everything. But I believe we must listen to each other, find common ground, work together on solutions and support each other, and do this with respect, and quite possibly… very likely … as friends.

We at the Coalition for the Deschutes have a dream that we will hand off to our children and grandchildren a robust and thriving river, and an even better place to call home.

We want do this together, as a community, as Central Oregonians united in vision and in action, with farmers and fishermen, and people like me who simply care, working together for the benefit of all.

Our vision is a healthy river, a healthy ecosystem, a healthy economy and a healthy community.

Fulfilling this vision will mean change. It will involve significant investment. It will be a lot of work. It will mean letting go of past grievances and taking an honest accounting of where are we are today, and why we have the problems we have. And then, it will mean moving forward with united resolve to find solutions and implement them.

I believe we are up to the challenge. The future of the river and our community is in our hands.

— Gail Snyder is co-founder and executive director of the Coalition for the Deschutes.