Farmer's patience wearing thin for 30-year plan to raise the Deschutes

July 25, 2023
Farmer's patience wearing thin for 30-year plan to raise the Deschutes

Nearly three years ago, irrigation districts in Central Oregon and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached an agreement that was supposed to be a compromise to protect wildlife and allow farmers to operate without the fear of being sued for their actions.

The deal, called the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan, is to last 30 years, but the honeymoon period appears to be running dry.

Earlier this month, Sean Vibbert, a Jefferson County wildflower seed producer, was in Washington, D.C., to testify before members of Congress about the hardships the plan creates for farmers. His complaints have been amplified by a chorus of farmers who say they have had it with environmental regulations that threaten their livelihoods.

“Farmers are overworked, overregulated, overwhelmed and discouraged,” said Matt Lisogni, a farmer with property in both Deschutes and Jefferson counties. “Every new regulation takes tools out of their box.”

While drought is a major concern, Lisogni said the habitat conservation plan is exacerbating the situation for farmers. The water allocations farmers are getting this year are threatening to send growers into bankruptcy, which in turn will send food prices higher, he said.

“Everyone that eats needs to understand the impact that these regulations have at the grocery store,” he said.

Increasing winter flows

The habitat conservation plan, devised by the eight irrigation districts in Central Oregon and the city of Prineville, was formally accepted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the end of 2020. According to the plan, the districts will gradually increase the winter flows of the Deschutes River over 30 years to improve habitat for the Oregon spotted frog and bull trout.

The river currently flows at around 100 cubic feet per second in winter per the initial stage of the plan, up from around 25 cfs. The outflow occurs in winter when the reservoir typically fills before the next irrigation season. Vibbert told members of Congress this is like trying to fill a bathtub with the drain unplugged.

Lisogni said he would like to see a reformation of the Endangered Species Act to reduce hardships on farmers who are impacted by the measures that wildlife managers take to protect species under threat.

In the North Unit Irrigation District, dairy farmer Jos Poland said in addition to bankruptcy the stress of the water crisis is taking a mental toll on farmers. One farmer in the area has committed suicide, he said.

“It’s heading in the wrong direction here now. Things are starting to hit the fan,” he said.

Farmers say the habitat conservation plan is preventing them from having a chance to battle the impacts of the drought, taking water away from them when it’s critically needed. North Unit farmers in particular face hardships because as junior water rights holders, they have already invested heavily in water conservation efforts like drip irrigation and water-efficient sprinkler systems.

“I pump back all my wastewater and run it around and around and around until I wear it out, so through efficiencies I can farm more than half my ground. But there are people in Jefferson County that aren’t going to farm that much of their ground with the current curtailments,” said North Unit farmer Gary Harris.

The double-whammy of drought and water restrictions for wildlife are compounded further by inflation. Cost increases for livestock feed are soaring, but farmers have no choice but to truck it in from out of state because they can’t grow it locally.

Vibbert, the North Unit farmer who testified in Washington, said he is a strong advocate for wildlife conservation but believes the habitat conservation plan is misguided and won’t help the spotted frog.

Increasing the flow of the Deschutes River in winter when the frog population is hibernating “under the snow and mud” won’t help improve life cycle conditions for the frog, he said.

Restoring historic flows

Farmers aren’t the only ones taking a swipe at the conservation plan. In January, the Center for Biological Diversity threatened to sue U.S. Fish and Wildlife over the habitat conservation plan, saying that the implementation process is too slow and its goals fall short of what is needed.

Biologists say the best way to improve habitat for species in the river is to bring the river back to flow conditions that existed before dams and irrigation canals altered the river’s natural flow.

Historically, before the dams and diversions, the Deschutes was a highly stable spring-fed river, with little change in flow throughout the year.

The rapid change in flow from season to season in recent decades has caused the river’s banks to erode. In spring, fragile frog masses that hold thousands of individual eggs can be dislodged from river banks when water levels rise rapidly.

Bridget Moran, Bend field office supervisor for the fish and wildlife service, said her agency works with farmers to manage water resources for both irrigators and wildlife. The conservation plan offers stability for all sides and needs to remain in place through “good and challenging times,” she said.

“While we understand there are diverging views about the HCP, it provides water resource and regulatory predictability that resolved a decades-long, intractable conflict between agricultural and conservation needs,” Moran said referring to the habitat conservation plan.

The Deschutes River Conservancy, a nonprofit that advocates for higher rates of water flowing in the Deschutes River but also seeks ways to help farmers become more water efficient, said drought is the main contributor to the water shortages and multiple years of good snowpack are needed to help farmers.

“It is critical for basin stakeholders to continue collaborating on adaptive strategies that promote water efficiency, foster resilience in our agricultural systems and protect the health of our rivers,” said Marissa Hossick, a spokesperson for the conservancy.

Hossick called for “continued collaboration and innovation” to overcome water shortages.

But for many Central Oregon farmers, there is no more time to wait and hope for a long-term solution.

“I am working myself into oblivion. I am getting a little tired of this,” said Poland, the North Unit farmer.

“My 16-year-old son says he wants to be a dairy farmer, but I am trying to tell him maybe it’s not a good idea.”

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