Editorial: A needed win for water: the water bank is back

December 19, 2021
Editorial: A needed win for water: the water bank is back

Oregon water laws create kingdoms. Small fiefs where individuals and groups wield power over a public resource, water. There are historical reasons for those laws. And efforts to usurp that power run smack into wailing resistance, if not lawsuits.

That’s why there is a special genius in the water bank that the Deschutes River Conservancy and others have revived. If the water bank is a success, it will put more water in the Deschutes basin in the place it is needed and less where it is not. And it will do so voluntarily, without stripping anyone of any water rights. It does not require any changes in Oregon water law.

A water bank can mean many things. Here it is a pilot program to enable the exchange of water between patrons of Central Oregon Irrigation District and where it is arguably needed more downstream in North Unit Irrigation District in Jefferson County.

A patron of COID would fill out a form. COID will check if that patron is eligible. If it checks out, the COID patron and COID would get a payment per acre of land of $125 from North Unit. Some water that would have gone to that COID patron will go to North Unit. North Unit will then release more water from its reservoir, Wickiup, which should slightly aid flows in the Deschutes River.

As we said, it’s voluntary. It’s also temporary, a one-year exchange. Irrigation districts still have control.

Those conditions and caveats on the pilot are important. Water rights holders and irrigation districts get understandably nervous about anything that looks like an erosion of their rights or control. Conservation groups and others have long argued Oregon water law should be rewritten.

It’s also important because it’s not always the easiest thing to share water. If people served by COID near the beginning of a lateral canal all happen to be eager to share their water with North Unit it could create a problem of enough water to get water to people at the end of that COID lateral.

The water bank depends on people served by COID being willing to share their water. Some do have water they can share. North Unit serves farmers. They make some of the most careful use of water in the basin. Their water rights are junior. In times of drought, there is nowhere near enough to grow crops on all the acres they would choose to. This year, the district essentially had to shut down the water to farms the earliest that it ever had.

Cooperation like this to find solutions to the basin’s water needs is what’s good about the basin. COID, North Unit and the Deschutes River Conservancy have set the stage. Now it’s up to water rights holders to use the water bank to make it work.

This will be the website for the program: www.deschuteswaterbank.org.

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