Guest column: Central Oregon farmers are fighting together to improve water stewardship

April 1, 2020
Guest column: Central Oregon farmers are fighting together to improve water stewardship

By Mike Weber 

Farmers are known for adapting. We adapt to bad weather, water scarcity, low market prices, labor availability and cumbersome regulations. Refusal to adapt could result in devastating outcomes. We adapt; that’s what farmers do.

The gap between farmers and those who live a rural lifestyle and those who don’t is getting wider and wider. Much of this is due to misinformation.

Most recently, I have heard a narrative circulating that pits irrigators against irrigators. Contrary to this dangerous narrative, North Unit Irrigation District (NUID) and Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID) are working toward mutually beneficial — not divisive solutions. We are adapting.

We are tired of being used as justification for environmental stewardship. Agriculture and the environment are not mutually exclusive, and polarization of the issues only undermines progress toward solutions.

The narrative shames COID for its old water delivery system and modernization efforts. Critics argue NUID should be prioritized to receive irrigation over COID landowners due to the assumption that COID landowners don’t utilize the water in a productive fashion. Fueling conflict with rhetoric is not useful.

This rhetoric assumes there is currently enough water in the system for COID, NUID, and fish and wildlife. There’s simply not, without large scale piping projects by the districts, which can be combined with voluntary efforts by landowners who undertake on-farm improvements.

It’s important to understand irrigation districts can’t force water users to become more efficient. State law doesn’t give irrigation districts the authority to do this. At the same time, however, state law does enable districts to make their overall delivery systems more efficient, which is what the districts are doing using a variety of conservation tools.

Historically, farmers and ranchers have upgraded their infrastructure on a piecemeal, project-by-project basis. This approach works at a small scale, but takes a relatively long time, does not effectively scale-up, and delays the community benefits that can be achieved through modernization. Due to their design, it’s estimated that up to 50% of all irrigation water in unimproved systems is lost before it ever makes it to the farm. Modernizing an irrigation system starts by replacing open canals with pipes, conserving the water previously lost to seepage and evaporation.

Gravity pressurizes the water delivered through the pipes, allowing irrigators to eliminate pumps, saving energy and related costs. When pressurized service is available, farmers will have a strong incentive to convert less-efficient systems and pipe private lateral lines to maximize the benefits of efficient water deliveries. As an example, once COID is piped and pressurized, the cost to farmers converting from flood irrigation to more efficient irrigation practices will decrease by 50%.

The truth is COID’s conservation measures will generate a more reliable water supply for NUID. NUID will then be able to make water available from its storage in Wickiup Reservoir to increase winter flows in the Upper Deschutes River. Efforts to stop COID’s conservation measures could have a direct and negative impact on my business and NUID farmers.

While some groups are busy fighting over how we should manage water, the districts are embracing partnerships that have been successful in securing large-scale investments needed to make a difference.

NUID and COID are partnering using a collaborative, scalable, and thoughtful approach to conservation. The districts are committed to ensuring the improvements benefit everyone, including rivers and fish.

Irrigation districts and farmer members are investing millions of their own dollars (not just taxpayer dollars) in improving the delivery system and their own on-farm operations. I’m proud of our efforts and thankful to U.S. Senator Merkley for helping us secure federal funding.

Large scale piping projects combined with voluntary efforts by landowners who undertake on farm improvements will allow us to achieve systemwide results in less time.

These modernized water delivery systems are a win for farmers, wildlife, rivers, and the local economy.

Mike Weber is the managing partner of Central Oregon Seed.

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