Central Oregon Irrigation District launches campaign to save water

September 5, 2023
Central Oregon Irrigation District launches campaign to save water

The Central Oregon Irrigation District has kicked off a campaign to educate its patrons on water conservation amid a multiyear drought that has left water for agriculture in short supply.

The Make Every Drop Count program is designed to encourage responsible and efficient water use, according to a news release by the district. Most of the program is centered on an online campaign featuring videos and reading resources on the district’s website. The program also encourages patrons to contact the district to discuss the status of the water rights and available options.

Water rights in Oregon are governed by a complex set of rules based on “first in time, first in right.” According to this rule, irrigation districts that registered their water rights first can draw their maximum allotments before districts with newer water rights get their water. When water is scarce, districts with newer water rights may see their allotments reduced or shut off.

The program is designed to ensure that patrons are all on the same page when it comes to water law.

“Central Oregon is rapidly expanding, and with that comes new water users who are unfamiliar with irrigation and water laws,” said Jessi Talbott, water relations manager for Central Oregon Irrigation District.

“It is our responsibility to ensure we are providing educational information and resources to patrons to help them do the best they can to conserve and protect the water rights,” she said.

The information campaign tries to simplify the complicated rules and regulations related to the “beneficial use of water,” which occurs when irrigation water is used on something that is planted, such as crops, pasture, a yard or other landscaping. Irrigation of native vegetation such as sagebrush and bunchgrass, or invasive and noninvasive weeds is not a beneficial use of an irrigation right.

The district spends approximately $200,000 each year to protect water rights and education for patrons, said Talbott. The funds are sourced from its hydropower facility and through rates.

The information campaign includes workarounds for people who don’t need their water every year. This might include instream leasing, which protects an individual’s water rights even if the user wants to leave the allotment in the river. The program also teaches patrons how they can maintain their water rights even if they are part of the instream-leasing program.

“Many patrons don’t know that instream leasing is an option that protects their water rights in years they don’t want to use it on the ground,” said Kate Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, a nonprofit that assists Central Oregon Irrigation District in water-conservation projects.

The conservancy incentivizes patrons to lease their water instream with financial compensation. The leased water helps the Deschutes River by increasing its flow rate, benefiting frogs, fish and other wildlife.

“Another important educational point is that using the right amount of water to sustain a crop counts as beneficial use — the full volume of water does not have to be used if it is not necessary. This encourages efficiency and conservation,” said Fitzpatrick.

Central Oregon Irrigation District, home to 3,500 patrons, holds senior rights in Central Oregon based on its 1900 and 1907 water rights. But despite its seniority, the district is curtailing water to its patrons back to 60% of normal this year due to low natural flows in the Deschutes River.

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An aerial view of a body of water.