Guest Column: Irrigator water shortages: Who is to blame?

September 2, 2020
Guest Column: Irrigator water shortages: Who is to blame?

As reported by The Bulletin on Aug. 28th, Lone Pine Irrigation District is the latest local district to run out of water to deliver to their patrons. This is terrible news; no one wants to see farmers losing their livelihoods. Water is a complicated topic in Central Oregon with many factors contributing to the shortage. Unfortunately, rather than addressing the real issues, Terry Smith, chairman of the board for LPID, places the blame on the Endangered Species Act.

Central Oregon irrigators currently have the right to stop all flows in the Upper Deschutes River below Wickiup Dam, which until recently they routinely did. Flows around 1,500 CFS in the summer and as low as 20 CFS in the winter were common, and those winter flows were from seepage out of the dam. After decades of extreme water fluctuations, the Upper Deschutes River ecosystem has been seriously degraded. Some species have gone extinct locally, and others are currently in danger of doing so.

All water in the state of Oregon is owned by the public. Irrigators have the right to beneficially use that water without waste, but they do not have the right to destroy ecosystems and cause extinctions. ESA-required flows of 100 CFS in the upper river over the winter do not restore the ecosystem, but it is a start. More importantly, effectively managed irrigation districts could return far more than 100 CFS to the river while maintaining deliveries to their patrons. The real problem for Central Oregon irrigators is denying science and astonishing water waste.

Global heating is real, and it is here now. Central Oregon has been in some level of drought for much of the past 20 years. Our aquifer is dropping, rivers are running lower, wells are going dry, and springs are releasing less water. No one seems to be paying attention to this or changing their behavior. Deschutes County, for example, just approved a new destination resort with golf courses and artificial lakes that will require tremendous amounts of water.

This lack of preparation for a hotter, drier future can also be seen in the Lone Pine Irrigation District. LPID is a small district that serves 21 patrons covering 2,369 acres. It has rights to live flow in the Deschutes as well as storage in Crane Prairie Reservoir. It has been apparent for months that water was going to be scarce this year. Once again, our winter snowpack was well under normal and most of our reservoirs did not fill.

Things could be better. LPID operates about 15 miles of canals, 10.5 miles of which are unlined, open channels dug into volcanic soil. Approximately 20% of the water diverted into these canals is lost to seepage and evaporation before reaching patrons. Spills at the end of canals also occur. Like other districts, LPID is now taking steps to pipe these canals, but this wasting of water has been going on for over 100 years. Blaming the Endangered Species Act is deflecting scrutiny from where it should be directed.

All districts in Central Oregon get their water for free. We, the public, own the water but do not get compensated for it. Irrigation districts charge their patrons for the delivery of the water and maintaining the system. Shouldn’t part of that include eliminating water waste from seepage and end spills? What happened to taking personal responsibility for maintaining and upgrading your own business assets? If properly managed, irrigators could get the water they need while still restoring the Deschutes River.

Yancy Lind lives in Tumalo and blogs about local water issues at

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An aerial view of a body of water.