Madras fears cutting irrigation will dry up community

Feb 17, 2016


Madras fears cutting irrigation will dry up community

Spotted frog lawsuit worries farmers, businesses; environmental groups urge big changes

By Kandra Kent

MADRAS, Ore. - Out in the fields of Jefferson County, more than 70 percent of America's carrot seed is grown, but it's inside the office where the books are kept that farmer Tom Kirsch worries that number could dip in the future.

"There's a lot of angst and a lot of nervousness. We don't know where we stand with irrigation water," Kirsch said Wednesday.

Kirsch is talking about what's become a popular topic in the rural farming community: the Oregon spotted frog lawsuit.

WaterWatch of Oregon and the Center for Biological Diversity recently sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and several Central Oregon irrigation districts over their management of water in the Deschutes River. And now they've filed for a quick court order to force changes before this spring's irrigation season begins in April.

WaterWatch spokesman Jim McCarthy said they group has spent years trying to compromise on water-saving solutions with stakeholders, without luck. He said the lawsuit was the last resort to spur change.

"We have to have change now. We can't just keep going with this maximum public cost, maximum delay and minimum change," McCarthy said, adding the public already had spent $2.6 million on collaborative efforts before the lawsuit was filed.

WaterWatch believes too much water is being pulled from the Deschutes River for irrigation and is hurting the spotted frog, fish and overall stream health.

Farmers argue the water is the lifeblood of their business. Because of the pending lawsuit, Kirsch said he's already made tough decisions.

"We've elected to not plant wheat, because of the uncertainties involved," Kirsch said. "The next crop we'd have to start looking at as far as making cuts is our grass seed."

With his son, Kirsch owns Madras Farms Co. He said the business grosses about $4 million annually, and he's worried less water could force him to cut production by 25 to 50 percent.

It's especially tough when farmers have to plant their crops well before they know how much water they'll receive.

"We already have more than $1 million invested in (the) 2016 crop, and if we have to abandon any part of that because of shortage of water, that will be a lost investment," Kirsch said.

The worry has spread much farther than the fields. NewsChannel 21spoke with five business owners who said they're following the lawsuit closely.

For The Rootbeer Stand owner Angenetta Coogan, it reminds her a lot of a childhood of moving.

"My dad worked in the logging industry," Coogan said. "It could affect us here like the same way it did in the '80s with the spotted owl. They started shutting down forests, people became unemployed and we moved from the valley to Eastern Oregon."

Now Coogan worries about her thrift store.

"It trickles down to the rest of us," she said. "We have a lot of immigrant workers who come into our store, and what's going to happen is eventually some of them will be out of a job."

Jefferson County Commissioner Mike Ahern said the county is united in its stance on the issue.

"There's no dissension -- I've heard no one," Ahern said. "Agriculture is Madras -- it's $70 million in economy. It would change this community to the worst, by a tremendous degree."

But WaterWatch and its supporters say the worst is already stacking the odds against fish, and wiping out the spotted frog, which in 2014 was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

"It's just not allowing them to reproduce," McCarthy said of seasonally low river flows. "They'll lay eggs, and the water will fall away from the eggs, and those eggs will dry out."

McCarthy said WaterWatch is pitching two solutions to save more water. One plan would keep flows much higher in the winter and a little bit lower in the summer.

"Right now, they're extraordinarily low in the winter and unnaturally high in the summer," McCarthy said.

Repercussions from low flows are evident in dried-up pools along several stretches of the Deschutes, where thousands of fish become stranded and die each year.

It's become a frustration for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has made an annual habit of organizing fish salvage parties in response to public outcry over the sight of many dead fish where water flowed earlier.

Last October, biologists and volunteers said they saved more than 7,000 trout, whitefish and sculpin.

WaterWatch is asking the judge to issue a ruling before the start of the irrigation season in April.

In Madras, there's still hope some sort of middle ground will be reached so the community doesn't dry up.

"I think it can be a win-win,"Ahern said. "There needs to be some change -- maybe more piping, possibly having retention areas in different areas. But the idea to just be cut off (from water) is just extreme craziness."

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