Drought is not only about climate change

July 23, 2021
Drought is not only about climate change

40% decrease in farm income

I am a fourth-generation farmer from Crook County, and my family has been farming in Central Oregon for more than 100 years. On my farm, we raise alfalfa, hay and carrot seed, along with cattle. Because of the drought, we’re expecting a 40% decrease in crop income from what we normally project.

I have seen multiple stories in the media focusing on how the drought has impacted agriculture, and I appreciate the attention to the plight of farmers and ranchers during this extremely dry season. However, more often than not, the articles will conclude that climate change is the sole cause of the water shortages we’re experiencing here in Central Oregon. The reality is a lot more complicated than that.

In agriculture, we have always faced tough water years. It’s part of being a farmer. This year is definitely one of the worst — if not the very worst — but to cast the blame solely on climate change misses the mark and doesn’t reflect the full picture of what we’re experiencing here on the ground.

For our irrigation districts, the impact of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) cannot be understated. The ESA has drastically altered water management in the Deschutes basin, and has resulted in significantly less water for our farms. But farmers have been doing our part.

Just last fall, in a local, collaborative initiative with the aim of complying with the ESA, the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) was approved by the federal government after years of negotiation.

The plan is a giant, proactive effort launched by the Central Oregon irrigation districts to come up with a long-term plan to protect salmon, frogs, and other species, while still providing water for irrigators. It will take a major commitment from local farmers and the districts to manage water in a way that benefits those species, while still allowing farmers to grow their crops.

Backing habitat improvement

As farmers, we have embraced this work — even though it means less water for us — because we support improving habitat. But it hasn’t been easy. This work has also showed me that we need meaningful Endangered Species Act reform. While we were eventually able to negotiate the HCP, the process cost millions of dollars, and it would be impossible for a farmer to navigate alone. And at the end of the day, it can still be litigated.

The ESA creates barriers to meaningful investment in whole ecosystem solutions to our complex water issues through always-increasing restrictions, litigation and bureaucracy that are incredibly challenging to manage and easy for outside parties to challenge.

We have also known for decades that we need to increase water storage if we are ever going to be able to meet the needs of both humans and ecosystems over time, yet we can’t seem to get any of those projects funded by the state or move beyond the many environmental hurdles that continuously challenge these initiatives.

Embrace the complexity

In order for agriculture to be sustainable, we need state support for innovative, forward-thinking water storage plans.

The current drought situation is dire and impacts almost all of us farmers in Central Oregon. But to point the finger at just climate change oversimplifies a complex problem that needs a collaborative, multifaceted solution and, most importantly, people willing to embrace the complexity and dive in to find solutions to our water problems.Photo: Wade Flegel is a member of the Oregon Farm Bureau board of directors and a fourth-generation farmer from Prineville, where he raises cattle, alfalfa, hay and carrot seed.

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