Editorial: The water problem we have may be it can look like we don't have a problem

August 5, 2021
Editorial: The water problem we have may be it can look like we don't have a problem

The real water problem in the Deschutes Basin may be that most people don’t feel the problem. You can gush water all over your lawn in Bend, as long as your bank account can cover it. Nobody stops you.

You can go out and float, paddle and have fun in the Deschutes in Bend. The river looks great.

We all know that there is a drought. That farmers are facing water shutoffs. That the forests and rangelands in Central Oregon are tinder dry.

But most people in the Deschutes Basin don’t feel the pain. So they don’t clamor for change. So the historic water system we have that is inefficient and inequitable doesn’t change.

It helps to review some numbers. In bad water years, such as we are having now and even in good years, the basin has water supply shortages of 200,000 acre -feet of water. An acre -foot is enough water to cover an acre in a foot of water.

Farmers could use a more fair system of distribution. And the river could do with more volume in all its stretches to ensure it stays cold and healthy.

Most of the basin’s water rights are for irrigation. Some 86%. About 12% stays instream or in the river. And 2% goes to municipalities — Bend, Redmond and so on.

The system we have of water rights is: the earliest rights to water get their water first. It doesn’t matter if one person with water rights just has a hobby farm and another grows crops for seed or for market. It doesn’t matter if the farmers in North Unit Irrigation make some of the most efficient use of water in the basin. Because they have some of the last water rights, they are among the ones suffering the most in this drought.

There are ways to improve things within the existing laws and rules. One of the best options could be more water leasing. For instance, a water right holder in Central Oregon Irrigation District who doesn’t need all the water he or she gets could lease it temporarily for another purpose, such as keeping more water in the river or perhaps even helping farmers with lower priority water rights. There may be as much as 130,000 acre -feet of water that could be voluntarily transferred, according to a survey of water rights holders. That is, if more water leasing were allowed.

Piping is another great solution. As much as 50 % of the irrigation water in the basin doesn’t get where it is intended to go in open ditches. It leaches into the soil. But many people who live near canals don’t want to see them piped. Canals and flumes are much more pleasant to look at. They also sometimes advance odd environmental arguments saying that piping will hurt the environment — it will dry up the trees and vegetation that grew up around the canals. That’s true, but the canals are human -made. They are essentially arguing their artificial, human -made ecosystem is more important than keeping more water in the river or ensuring farmers get water to grow crops.

Piping the network of canals and laterals in the basin is eye-poppingly expensive. It would cost more than $1 billion. And so pieces of the irrigation system may get piped every year thanks primarily to tax dollars, but it happens slowly. More water leasing would give more bang for the buck now.

One last thought. People sometimes bring up water as a reason that Bend should not become more dense or be so intent on building more housing and more affordable housing. There is something to that argument. But remember in the basin municipal water use is actually a tiny sliver of the water use. That 2%. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t conserve or people shouldn’t worry about the impact of more people on a high desert. But the bulk of the water issues in the basin are not problems created by municipal use.

If you want more information about water use and water solutions in the basin, one of the best resources is the nonprofit Deschutes River Conservancy. It brings together irrigation interests, conservationists, municipalities and more to find water solutions for the basin. Go to deschutesriver.org.

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