Editorial: Should irrigation districts consolidate into one in the Deschutes Basin?

August 19, 2020
Editorial: Should irrigation districts consolidate into one in the Deschutes Basin?

Before the drought hit Central Oregon and irrigation districts began cutting off water to their patrons, the Deschutes River Basin was already in trouble.

The Deschutes River can get so low below Bend at some times of year water temperatures shoot up, making it poor wildlife habitat. Upstream of Bend things can get worse. Fish can be left flopping around, stranded in shallow pools. Some irrigation district customers also get plenty of water while others with more junior rights can suffer.

It needs fixing, and we shouldn’t take for granted the steady work that is being done to create meaningful improvements. There’s even some discussion of a more revolutionary change — six of the irrigation districts in the basin could join to become one.

First, two more conventional projects deserve a mention. They are after all, your tax dollars at work. Just this week Central Oregon Irrigation District got the go-ahead on the federal money for what had been planned as a $30 million project to pipe about 7 miles of the Pilot Butte Canal between Redmond and Smith Rock. More water should stay in the river and North Unit Irrigation District, which is located further downstream, will have access to more water. Win win.

Slightly more unusual is work on what’s called water marketing. Central Oregon Irrigation District and the Deschutes River Conservancy have a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to figure out ways to allow sharing of water rights between users. Individuals with water rights can lease their water back into the river. But a farmer can’t just share water with another farmer who needs it more, no matter how much they may want to. The grant will look at ways to enable that to happen. It could be an important shift in getting water where it is needed more.

Then there’s the idea of irrigation districts joining up. The basin has eight districts, though only six of them are really connected. We should emphasize there is no formal action being taken right now for them to consolidate. The benefit could be coordination. It’s difficult to coordinate the boards of six districts. Anything that would improve the ability of water to be moved more freely between those who have less use for it to those who really need it would be a major improvement.

Would there be downsides? It would concentrate power. That could make it harder to fight what any consolidated district chose to do, if someone disagreed with it. There’s also the issue of representation. Water rights holders may have less of a connection to the board members on a single board for the region than they have now with six boards. Water rights holders will not like it if they feel like it diminishes their control over their right. There’s also no guarantee that any merger would be better for the health of the river.

If there is going to be any progress, it could start with a merger between Central Oregon Irrigation District and North Unit. Their systems are intertwined. They share a border. It’s not far-fetched. If those districts want to build a lasting legacy toward improving the way water is shared in the basin, they should at least formally study the idea.

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