Guest column: Attack on irrigation water was not fair

May 8, 2018
Guest column: Attack on irrigation water was not fair

In the April 10 guest column entitled, “Deschutes should not be damaged for personal profit,” George Wuerthner suggested that Central Oregon’s water woes would be solved if the state would only force farm and ranch families to stop using water for agriculture.

“In other words, if the only withdrawals were for cities like Bend, the Deschutes would still be a functioning river,” he wrote.

As a third-generation farmer, I took great umbrage at his column. It’s saddening that we farmers and ranchers, who today comprise less than 1 percent of the population, must defend ourselves against such misguided attacks.

Agriculture is an excellent use of water. Agriculture also makes invaluable contributions to Central Oregon’s economy, landscape and quality of life.

Water rights are a critical part of farmers’ operations. In Oregon, the state considers water rights property rights. The Oregon Supreme Court has recognized the critical value of a water right and has held that after a water right is established, its holder has a property interest in that right. As such, if the state were to take a water right away, the holder would be entitled to compensation from the state.

Contrary to Wuerthner’s assertion, irrigators pay for their water rights in a myriad of ways. Irrigated land is taxed at a higher value than nonirrigated land, such that the rights are taxed as part of a farm or ranch’s property value. As with municipal water, there are also significant infrastructure and pumping costs for farmers.

In terms of conservation and the demands on our state’s precious water supply, no one is more aware of these pressures than are irrigators in Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties.

And few are doing more to find solutions.

Between the growing population of cities like Bend, endangered species lawsuits and reduced rainfall, the water that’s used in agriculture is constantly discussed and scrutinized. Local farmers participate in public meetings on regional water use and planning, work closely with their irrigation districts and proactively reach out to environmental groups, tribes, community leaders and elected officials to explain why and how they use water.

These farmers have a great story to tell. They’re leading the state, even the nation, in terms of water conservation and efficiency, investing a lot of money in the most efficient, high-tech irrigation systems available, including drip irrigation, pressurized sprinklers and finely calibrated nozzles. Many are researching funding opportunities to do even more.

Farmers are dedicating their time, energy and money to do their part to find a way to meet the water needs of all, for agriculture, municipalities, recreation and wildlife. It’s a complex, ongoing challenge, and it demands a collaborative approach.

Some of these farmers raise hay, an important crop for this region. Hay is used as feed for many types of animals, is a major export market, and is Oregon’s No. 3 commodity by production value.

But that’s not the only crop grown here.

Local farmers and ranchers also use water to raise cattle, sheep, horses, alpacas, nuts, fruits, vegetables, eggs, garlic, wheat, wine grapes, oil crops and seed for vegetables, grass, flowers and, most famously, hybrid carrots.

A 2017 study, “Agriculture and Irrigation in Oregon’s Deschutes and Jefferson Counties” by Headwaters Economics, reports that Central Oregon agriculture contributes $274.5 million every year to the local economy.

Farmers and ranchers are also to thank for the much of the beautiful, undeveloped landscape enjoyed by all residents and visitors, along with critical habitat for wildlife.

No one is suggesting that there ­aren’t challenges around water use and planning. But to propose that agriculture isn’t worthy of water is wildly misguided and ill-informed.

— Barry Bushue is the president of Oregon Farm Bureau.

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