Editorial: Legislature comes through for Central Oregon housing and drought

December 15, 2021
Editorial: Legislature comes through for Central Oregon housing and drought

By the Bend Bulletin Editorial Board

The Legislature in its one-day special session Monday tackled head-on the worries of tenants and landlords. But there were also smaller actions legislators took that would specifically benefit Central Oregon: to protect Jefferson County farmers devastated by drought and to help on housing issues for Bend and Redmond.A local legislator, state Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, was in the negotiations with other legislative leaders and Gov. Kate Brown to shape the bills passed in the session.

One of those bills, Senate Bill 5561, will have a direct impact in Jefferson County. North Unit Irrigation District provides water for nearly 59,000 acres of farmland. The farmers there make some of the most efficient use of water in the Deschutes Basin. That’s because they have to. The district has junior water rights. And there is not enough water in the basin to satisfy every water right, especially in drought years. This year North Unit effectively shut down the water in its canals in August. It was the earliest shut-off since its storage area, Wickiup Reservoir, was completed in 1949. After a year of drought and years of insufficient snowpack the reservoir was down to 2% capacity.

There was some relief in the fall, but basically North Unit farmers did not get enough water for their crops.Some farmers have had to let half their land go fallow for several years, as The Bulletin’s Michael Kohn has reported. Fewer crops mean less money to pay bills, mortgages and for water. That is where the Legislature’s allocation in Senate Bill 5561 of $5.5 million to North Unit Irrigation District will help. Mike Britton, executive manager for the district, told us there was a real possibility that farmers would not be able to pay their water bills this year. And that is a major way the district supports its operations. He could not say for sure but he thought it likely that the district will use the money to not charge patrons for water for a certain time period. The money from the Legislature will help with that and ensure the district is still around.

Other drought relief is in the pipeline for Jefferson County and other parts of the state.A second piece of legislative action in the same bill allocates $1 million each for Bend and Redmond for “housing insecurity, lack of affordable housing or homelessness.” It is not clear, yet, what strings may be attached to the money by the Department of Administrative Services. But we do know the reaction from the city of Bend: “Bend thanks the Legislature and Sen. Knopp for the tremendous investment.

We anticipate deploying the funding very quickly to help bring relief to our struggling community members by investing in affordable housing and related supportive services....” Redmond City Manager Keith Witcosky told us Redmond has no shortage of need and no decisions have been made about how it will be spent.There have been too many examples in recent years when the Oregon Legislature seemed dysfunctional. Here it was not. The pandemic and drought have made some Oregonians more vulnerable. Legislators delivered an appropriate response.

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