Guest Column: Meeting Central Oregon's water challenges

April 5, 2024
Guest Column: Meeting Central Oregon's water challenges


Thank you for the recent series of articles in The Bulletin by Michael Kohn about the complex water availability issues facing Central Oregon. Jefferson County farmers greatly appreciate having their story told.

Agriculture is vital to the economy and sociocultural fabric of our neighbors to the north around Madras. In Jefferson County, over 90% of farms are family operations; the oldest are fifth- or sixth-generation farmers. Many farmers are innovators and early adopters of new technologies. The area is known for the production of high-value specialty and seed crops. The 100-square-mile North Unit Irrigation District (NUID) is the second largest irrigation district in Oregon, and its farmers are some of the most efficient users of irrigation water in the state.Jefferson County agriculture is part of a regional, national, and international network. Over 90% of Jefferson County irrigated land is dedicated to crop production with less than 10% planted for pasture, unlike most of the rest of the agricultural lands in the Upper Deschutes Basin. Half of the hybrid carrot seed planted worldwide comes from Jefferson County; enough carrots are grown from this seed to feed 1 billion people! Jefferson County is also home to the second largest producer of wildflower seed in the U.S., which supports monarch butterflies in the Midwest. Over 10% of the bluegrass seed used in American lawns, sports turf, and greenscapes comes from the Madras area. Additional irrigated crops include other grass seed, alfalfa seed, potatoes, grains, nursery crops, herbs, mint for oil and tea leaf, garlic, and fresh vegetables.

Agriculture continues to drive Jefferson County’s economy. Gross income from agricultural sales totaled $63 million in 2022. By comparison, agricultural sales in Deschutes County totaled $40 million. Jefferson County is one of Oregon’s poorest counties, with a 15% poverty rate, 6.1% unemployment rate (twice that of Oregon), and a median household income that is $15,000 less than the state of Oregon.

The agricultural economy in Jefferson County is being devastated by drought. Forty percent of NUID lands did not receive any irrigation water in 2022, as a result of drought and 100-year-old infrastructure and water laws.

In November 2022, the Jefferson County Agricultural Drought Resiliency Group was convened to develop a long-range plan to help Jefferson County agriculture thrive despite drought. The group is open to any interested parties that seek to move forward in a collaborative manner to help both fish and farmers.The group’s concerns if the water situation is not addressed include:

  • Increased conflict between various interests (not only humans, but also fish, wildlife, and the earth) competing for scarce water.
  • Farmers/ranchers leave their land; the landscape deteriorates from increased desertification.
  • The end of Jefferson County irrigated agriculture and, therefore, the loss of the main economic base for the area and community.
  • Land taken over by non-agricultural interests, e.g., housing and commercial developers.
  • The whole Deschutes River Basin deteriorates environmentally, socio-culturally, and economically.

The group identified over 40 tools to help Jefferson County agriculture (and Central Oregon) thrive. Some of the highest priorities right now are:

  • Piping canal infrastructure in Upper Deschutes Basin irrigation districts, which can transfer saved water to NUID. While NUID is also piping selected canals, piping all 300 miles of NUID canals would cost almost $2 billion dollars and is less cost-effective than piping other districts.
  • Diversifying crops even more, optimizing irrigation water use, and planting cover crops.

Jefferson County has an exciting opportunity to create a resilient agricultural watershed. We are optimistic that your Jefferson County farmers, friends, family, and neighbors can adapt to meet changing climate conditions. And we need your help! Learn about us. Participate in farm tours. Attend the Deschutes River Conservancy seminars and other educational opportunities, View our video at Jefferson County Agriculture & Conservation — YouTube. Read our long-range plan at Participate in the Drought Group. Share your knowledge.

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