All-or-nothing lawsuits not the answer for the Deschutes

March 24, 2016
All-or-nothing lawsuits not the answer for the Deschutes

U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken sent environmentalists and irrigators out of her court with plenty of homework this week. If the three local irrigation districts, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and their opponents, WaterWatch of Oregon and the Center for Biological Diversity, apply themselves, they might avoid what could be a long and expensive court battle that hurts both sides.

At issue is how the Deschutes River is managed and its impact on the Oregon spotted frog, an endangered species. The two environmental groups sued Central Oregon, Tumalo and North Unit irrigation districts and BOR. They argue that holding water in Crescent Lake and Wickiup and Crane Prairie reservoirs over winter and then releasing it in the summer creates unnatural flows that hurt the frog, and they sought an injunction to force the districts to release water immediately.

Had Aiken granted the injunction Tuesday, the impact on agriculture, particularly in Jefferson County, could have been huge.

North Unit Irrigation District, the largest supplier of irrigation water in the county, relies exclusively on water stored over winter and released slowly over summer. Farmers there cannot put water released in early spring to good use, and without water in summer, they cannot grow the seed crops, hay and grain on which they make their livings. To add to that loss, some already have purchased seeds and fertilizer for use this year.

Aiken was clear about what she wants from the two sides. According to an article in Wednesday’s Bulletin, she said she prefers irrigators and environmental groups to work together for a long-term water management solution. “The battle is to do better, rather than just do all-or-nothing litigation,” she told the parties.

And that, in turn, requires that all the parties come to the table with a continued willingness to find answers that all can live with. Moreover, it requires that everyone, including irrigators, approach the issue with a sense of urgency. After several years of working on a water plan, what’s needed in the very near future is a firm means of accomplishing it. Aiken made that clear Tuesday.

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