Guest Column: Let's pull together to solve long-standing water issues

August 15, 2021
Guest Column: Let's pull together to solve long-standing water issues

Punishing drought conditions have prevailed yet again across Oregon and throughout the Western United States. Twenty-two of the 36 counties in Oregon have declared drought emergencies, including Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties. Extreme heat, declining snowpack, and dry spring weather has parched the land and strained water supplies leaving rivers, fish and farmers high and dry. Water users with junior water rights are receiving less than half their allocations and some have been shut off completely. Some farmers are facing brutal economic impacts. Even irrigators with senior water rights are getting cut back this year, a largely unprecedented action.

Water scarcity is an impetus for change. It is time to accelerate solutions. The situation we find ourselves in is not the fault of the frog, the fish or any one irrigator group. It is a legacy water allocation issue, made worse by extreme drought and climate change.

The state gave out water rights over 100 years ago on a first come first served system that placed the head of the line closer to Bend and the end of the line in Jefferson County. The idea of leaving water instream to support a riverine ecosystem was simply not a consideration in the face of the region’s seemingly limitless abundance. Fast forward 100 years, multiply the population many times over, and we find ourselves maintaining a system that is no longer sustainable and that ceased being equitable long ago. While some irrigators can count on more reliable water, those last in line are balancing a financial and emotional tightrope between adequate supplies and devastating scarcity. Once these water rights are served, critical reaches of local rivers and streams are left uninhabitable for fish and other wildlife. Tribal priorities are unmet.

The Deschutes River Conservancy and basin partners are implementing solutions now. Now is the time to come together and support these solutions.

The following actions are happening now and here is what you can do:

Irrigation districts are working together to share water in new ways. If you want to share your water with others, please contact your irrigation district.

We are developing programs with irrigation districts that will accelerate water trades and sharing. Support the development of a water bank that could move water more flexibly on a voluntary basis.

Irrigation districts are implementing large-scale canal piping projects, which reduce water demands significantly. Past piping projects have restored significant flows to our rivers. Support irrigation district canal piping projects: They are one of the most effective conservation tools we have.

The DRC leases water instream from irrigation patrons every year, adding to river flows. If you want to lease your irrigation water, please contact the DRC to lease it instream in 2022.

DRC and partners are funding water efficiency programs that will help water users improve efficiencies. If you use irrigation water, please take advantage of these programs to become as efficient as possible.

The city of Bend has won conservation awards for keeping city water use flat despite a growing population. Let’s build on this success. If you have a lawn or backyard irrigation, please use it wisely and consider using less this year.

Everybody needs to be a water steward this year. As community members who care for rivers, communities, and sustainable agriculture, we ask you to support us. Please use water as carefully as possible and support the partners working hard right now to solve longstanding river flow issues and to reduce the impacts of drought on farmers.

This summer shows the urgency of collaboration, innovation and forward-thinking change. We have a strong foundation to draw on. This is the time to pull together and make real progress in stewarding this precious natural resource. Water is life. Let’s treat it as such.


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An aerial view of a body of water.