Diverse group of CO water users band together for conservation

February 14, 2020
Diverse group of CO water users band together for conservation

More than 40 groups come together to protect rivers, farmers

By Michael Kohn

Mike Britton, general manager for the North Unit Irrigation District, didn’t want to use a cliche when speaking earlier this month in Madras to a group of farmers about the water crisis hitting farmers in Jefferson County.

But the phrase “it takes a village” just seemed too appropriate to pass up.

“If you think we can fix this on our own, you are crazy,” said Britton. “There’s a lot of people involved, (including) water and agricultural users, environmental groups and fisheries. It takes a village for us to continue what we do in the best way we can do it.”

Britton’s point was clear. No matter how efficient his patrons are at saving water — and they are considered some of the best in the state — water conservation in Central Oregon is going to involve a coordinated effort among a variety of stakeholders. The groups have banded together for different reasons — to save the environment, to preserve water for agriculture or to protect wildlife — but for all of them to get there requires cooperation.

Historically, it wasn’t so. In particular, the irrigation districts rarely collaborated on projects as they do today.

“We knew their rights were senior, and that was the plate we were handed,” said Richard Macy, who has farmed in Jefferson County since 1976.

Macy serves as a board member for the North Unit Irrigation District, which is last in line when it comes to water rights.

As a junior water rights holder, North Unit farmers receive some of the smallest water allotments per acre in Central Oregon.

Working with environmental groups is also a relatively new process, and relations were occasionally tense in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said Macy, due to worries over how natural resources would be managed.

“There was concern that our livelihood could be restricted,” said Macy, a producer of potato, carrot and bluegrass seed, as well as peppermint for oil.

Finding common groundThose concerns have eased in recent years, as the groups realized that hashing out solutions in meeting rooms was better than going to court.

“We need to work together to find common ground,” said Gail Snyder, executive director of Coalition for the Deschutes, a nonprofit that has helped facilitate much of the discussion. “Rather than just being in conflict and saying you are doing it all wrong and we are going to bring lawsuits, we need to find common ground and see how we can improve things.”

In order to help bridge the divide, Snyder organizes farm tours two or three times a year to help nonfarmers better understand water challenges in the area.

Farmers have traveled, too, to Bend and other cities, to give talks on their experience managing precious water resources.

“It’s all about education,” said Phil Fine, a grower of carrot seed, bluegrass seed, alfalfa and other crops. Fine has spoken to hiking and biking groups at venues in Bend. “People don’t really understand what we do and how the Deschutes Basin works, so we help guide them through the challenges.”

COID and North UnitFor North Unit, none of the coalition members are more important than the Central Oregon Irrigation District, which started out more than a century ago, with dozens of large farms near Bend, Redmond and Alfalfa.

Most of the landholdings in COID have since been carved up into smaller properties. A smaller ditch that once delivered water to one farm now splits off to 10 or 20 users. Unlike the North Unit, where farms produce products distributed globally, farming for profit by COID patrons is increasingly rare. Most patrons are hobby farmers, retirees or others just looking for space from their neighbors and a place to let their horses graze.

While they paid little attention since their founding in the early 1900s, the two districts are now collaborating on projects to get more water to North Unit, where it’s needed most. Fine said conservation projects have allowed COID to deliver 6,000 acre-feet of water per season near Smith Rock, or about 1,200 acre-feet a month during the irrigation season. An acre-foot of water is the amount of water it would take to cover an acre of land in one foot of water.

A $30 million piping project being developed by COID, which will end water loss in a segment of the Pilot Butte canal, is expected to add another 10,000 acre-feet of water per year at the Wickiup Reservoir. That project should be finished in two years.

“We have to tweak how water moves around,” said Fine. “COID is a vital part of what we are doing.”

A portion of the money to pay for the COID piping project comes from federal grants through the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program, also known as PL-566. About $100 million is available to Central Oregon to pay for piping projects that help reduce water loss in the area’s leaky network of canals.

“Collaborative efforts have made these projects possible,” said Fine. “Without everyone on board, you can’t get the attention you need. When you have national environmental organizations speaking on your behalf it goes a long way.”

Water Transfers and ConservationFor the districts, collaboration can mean many things, including the transferring of water to other districts in the basin, or making water available for other uses and interests. COID patrons who don’t need the water delivery can opt to leave the water in the river without any penalty, a joint decision between the patrons and the district that’s also known as an “instream transfer.” While the water right can be transferred instream or to another irrigation district, such as North Unit, it can’t do both at the same time.

The Deschutes River Conservancy, a nonprofit group, is assisting the districts in the facilitation of water transfers between districts and back to the rivers. The Conservancy is also helping to source funding programs that conserve water on farms.

Plans to help farmers convert from flood irrigation to more water-efficient sprinklers through financial incentives are being accelerated, said Ron Nelson, the conservancy’s executive director.

“There’s hope that water conservation could make water available for North Unit and higher releases out of Wickiup in winter as well,” said Nelson. “That is the focus right now.”

Higher releases out of Wickiup are needed to support habitat for Oregon spotted frog, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The conservancy was part of the group of collaborators that launched the Deschutes Water Alliance, which created a water bank as a way to redistribute water rights in the basin in a fair and equitable manner without speculation driving up the costs.

Another initiative was the Basin Study Working Group, which included 40 members and worked to establish a water management plan for the Deschutes Basin. While the original project ended, the group is attempting to re-establish itself as the tentatively-called Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative.

“The purpose is to have a forum for all stakeholders to have a voice,” said Michael Tripp, a board member of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited. “One of our challenges is crafting solutions. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity.”

Habitat Conservation PlanWhile it has its critics, the culminating feat of the irrigation districts and their attempts to collaborate is the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan, which was developed to improve streamflows for endangered species, including the Oregon spotted frog, steelhead trout and bull trout.

In exchange for leaving more water in the Deschutes River for fish and wildlife, the irrigation districts will receive an incidental take permit, which allows them to continue to pull water from the river without the threat of litigation from government agencies.

“We weren’t too far from becoming another Klamath Falls,” said Martin Richards, a local farmer and the chairman of the NUID board of directors. “After 11 or 12 years we want to get the HCP signed, which will provide certainty.”

Richards was referring to a lawsuit that ended in victory for Klamath basin tribes against farmers who sued the federal government in 2001 for reducing their irrigation water supply. The parties spent two decades in the courts.

“The education and the collaboration have turned it around, in no small part from environmental groups,” said Richards. “They backed the irrigation districts and have become proactive in helping us fund our programs.”

While plans to resolve the water shortages and environmental degradation remain a long way off for those involved, Britton, the North Unit general manager, says avoiding lawsuits will ultimately benefit all parties. And from a human perspective, it’s just better to work out differences with your neighbors, despite their politics and motivations.

“It’s not always commonplace to see ag and environmental organizations standing side-by-side to resolve complex issues,” said Britton. “More often than not it’s just the opposite.”

Reporter: 541-617-7818,

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