Guest column: Canal piping is not enough

April 13, 2019
Guest column: Canal piping is not enough

By Yancy Lind

On April 6, The Bulletin ran a front-page story about Arnold Irrigation District applying for a $48 million grant to pipe its main canals and subsequently wrote an editorial in support of this. AID would join other local irrigation districts in efforts to conserve water, much of which will be returned to the Deschutes River. For decades, the upper and middle Deschutes has suffered from de-watering, and efforts to return water to the river are to be applauded. This is only part of the story, however.

About 100 years ago, in an attempt to attract farmers to the wilderness of Central Oregon, water rights were granted to local irrigation districts to divert local rivers into the High Desert. Irrigators now have rights to 90% of the Upper Deschutes. Note that water rights, not water ownership, were granted. Oregon law states that the public owns all water. Irrigation districts and others have rights to the water, but only if it is beneficially used for the public trust without waste.

Water is becoming increasingly scarce throughout the West as droughts have become more frequent, groundwater pumping has lowered water tables, and rivers have been drained. Shortages are predicted to intensify as the climate continues to heat.

For almost a decade, much of Oregon has been in an extended drought. As of April 2, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the recent series of storms in Central Oregon have lessened our drought from extreme to moderate, but it will take much more snow to return moisture to the ground and replenish our aquifers. Note that a large snowpack with a cool spring and summer are required to slowly release water and maintain constant flows. The rain on snow events we are having are not helpful.

Last summer, local reservoirs began irrigation season full but were emptied by withdrawals as lack of adequate snowpack did not replenish them through the summer. Wickiup was drained, which could occur this summer as well. According to another recent story in The Bulletin, farmers in North Unit Irrigation District around Madras have been told that anticipated water shortages next summer will require a 25% decrease in water deliveries. At the same time, our growing population will require more and more water.

Water supplies have been over-appropriated and mismanaged for decades; I believe it is time to tackle this issue with urgency and reform antiquated laws, regulations and practices. We could begin by charging for water. It is important to understand that irrigators profit from but do not pay the public for water. Free water leads to inefficient use. Charging a fair market rate would eliminate countless wasteful practices and drive conservation via upgraded on-farm delivery systems. Variable rates could be established based on type of use: municipal, high-value agriculture, industrial, etc. Payments could be used for a range of conservation efforts.

Simple market economics can work. The recently concluded Basin Study Work Group showed that on-farm conservation and efficiency approaches driven by economic self-interest can be implemented more quickly, at far less cost, than massive taxpayer-subsidized infrastructure projects.

Water use should be measured. Shockingly, this is not done today. Definitions also need clarification. A water right holder can maintain that right by “beneficially” using water without “waste,” but these terms are not defined in a way commiserate with the public trust. Beneficial use can be satisfied by simply watering the ground. Watering a large lawn or even weeds is considered of equal value to growing food, providing drinking water or keeping rivers healthy. Finally, water right holders should be able to surrender those rights and return water to rivers, lakes and aquifers. Irrigation district policies largely block this.

Water is a basic element required by all of us and the ecosystems we cherish and rely on. There is enough water when properly managed. By itself, piping irrigation districts’ main canals is not sufficient.

— Yancy Lind lives in Bend.

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