By Dan Keppen

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Farmers and ranchers are often targeted by well-meaning individuals and groups who don’t quite appreciate or understand the hard work and collaboration required to drive local agricultural and water management endeavors. Case in point: Tod Heisler’s recent commentary (’Tis the season to waste water, May 19).

Water connects us all — farms, cities and the environment. While decreased water supply reliability presents unique problems for each sector, the solutions should be interconnected and mutually beneficial — not divisive. That is exactly what is happening now along the Deschutes and Crooked rivers, despite Mr. Heisler’s criticism.

The Tumalo and Three Sisters irrigation districts’ recent irrigation modernization investments in partnership with a diverse group of solution-driven interests show that real progress can be made when people of different backgrounds and political persuasions come together to solve problems in a practical way.

Similar efforts and new success stories are on the horizon.

Over the next 11 years, districts along the Deschutes River and Crooked River systems will undertake work that will conserve over 31 million gallons of water per day and save farmers more than 4 million kilowatt-hours of energy. This will be achieved through the conversion of 69 miles of canals into pressurized pipe. These modernized water delivery systems offer a win for farmers, wildlife, the rivers, and the local economy.

The new, assertive and coordinated irrigation modernization approach that is sweeping across Central Oregon would not be progressing as efficiently nor as quickly without the committed cooperation of multiple public and private entities and support from elected officials. Contrary to Mr. Heisler’s claims, the districts and patrons are investing millions of their own dollars (not just taxpayer dollars) to improve the delivery system and their own on-farm operations. 

The region’s water resources and dependent species, as well as the social and economic health of communities like the city of Prineville will also see long-term benefits from the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan (DBHCP). The total estimated cost to develop the DBHCP is expected to be approximately $7 million, with $3.4 million being paid by districts and the city.

The Family Farm Alliance is a member of the steering committee of the Western Agriculture and Conservation Coalition (WACC), a diverse group of organizations that first came together a decade ago around the farm bill conservation title with the goal of supporting the common interests of agriculture and conservation. The WACC is becoming increasingly effective on the narrow list of topics its members engage in, including the farm bill that was signed into law last December.

The new farm bill includes bolstered conservation funding and several important provisions that will assist Western agricultural irrigators, including expanded authority under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program for irrigation districts to receive funding as direct applicants for water conservation measures. It continues to make districts eligible as partners for other conservation activities with growers. The farm bill also provides improved contracting for partners engaged in work with producers under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.

The modernization investments that Central Oregon districts are undertaking in partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service are excellent examples of projects that provide water conservation benefits for fish habitat and drought resilience. Modernized irrigation systems create opportunities for rural communities to increase water reliability and develop local renewable energy resources, which generate a new revenue source for local economies.

Fortunately, constructive interests understand that maintaining a mosaic of working farms and ranches along with lands managed for conservation purposes helps meet the equally important needs of the river, the agricultural community and cities. This philosophy is captured perfectly in the modernization approach and habitat conservation efforts employed by many local interests.

Believe it or not, collaboration is harder than picking a fight. But it works.

It’s time to put aside grudges, keep focused on the task at hand and work together to find real solutions to the benefit of Central Oregon rivers and communities.

— Dan Keppen of Klamath Falls is executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, a nonprofit organization representing irrigated agriculture in the 17 Western States.

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