Guest column: Deschutes should not be damaged for personal profit

April 10, 2018
Guest column: Deschutes should not be damaged for personal profit

Most Central Oregon residents are aware that the Deschutes River is severely compromised. However, the public is not getting all the information needed to make intelligent choices about the Deschutes River.

Some 90 percent of the water withdrawn from the Deschutes River is for irrigation. By comparison, all industry and municipal withdrawals amount to 5 percent. In other words, if the only withdrawals were for cities like Bend, the Deschutes would still be a functioning river.

As a result of agriculture withdrawals, the historic flow of the river of around 700 cubic feet per second is sometimes reduced to a shocking trickle of 20 cubic feet per second with serious consequences for the aquatic life dependent on continuous flows.

What the irrigators don’t want the public to know is that all water in Oregon is publicly owned.

Indeed, an article in the Law Journal confirms this public ownership. The Oregon Supreme Court “maintains that Oregon’s public trust doctrine is grounded on public ownership of natural resources held in trust by the state in sovereign ownership. The state has always claimed ownership of water and wildlife within the state, so the courts should recognize both as public trust resources.”

What we see with regards to the Deschutes River is a failure of the state to preserve the public’s ownership and protection of our water and river system.

Why is this important? Because irrigators are removing water from the Deschutes River that belongs to all Oregonians and using that water — for which they pay nothing — for their private profit.

The term “water right” is thrown around all the time. Do not be misled by the term “water right.” In reality, we are talking about “water privileges.”

Irrigators have no legal right to our water. What a “water right” addresses is who gets water and how much if, and only if, the public decides to allow water withdrawals for “beneficial uses.” The public can redefine what is “beneficial.”

We can decide that keeping our water in the Deschutes River for fish, frogs, recreation, scenic, watershed and other values is a higher use of this water than growing low-­value crops like hay in the desert that can easily be produced elsewhere without draining our rivers.

For nearly a century, the public has never challenged the idea that our water can be removed from our rivers for free by irrigators.

But the Deschutes Basin Study, a collaborative heavily stacked with irrigation districts, suggests options: that we must pay to “lease” our water so we can put some back in the river or alternatively, taxpayers are asked to pay for things like piping or more efficient irrigation equipment (which by the way enhances the value of the farms and ranches who participate) so that we get back some of our water back in the river.

In an effort to partially repair the damage done by water withdrawals, the Basin Study proposes the option of spending perhaps as much as $1 billion dollars of taxpayer funds so that irrigators can continue to produce about $10 million in crops annually. Mind you, even if we expend this money, we will not be getting the full historic flows back in the river. So, the river system will still be degraded.

In the case of the Deschutes River, we are being asked to give away OUR water to irrigation districts for FREE, and use it for their profit, while the public is left with a degraded river and the bill for this proposal. This is a classic case of privatize profits and socialize costs.

The philosophical question that should be asked is why anyone should have the “right” to damage and impoverish public waterways for their personal profit. Ultimately this is the issue at hand, and so far, the Basin Study is refusing to ask that question.

— George Wuerthner is an ecologist and author of numerous books. He lives in Bend.

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