Guest column: Misplaced blame and anger about water

September 3, 2021
Guest column: Misplaced blame and anger about water

The Bulletin has extensively covered the drought’s impact on Central Oregon irrigators, especially those with the most junior water rights. We should all have sympathy for those whose primary livelihood comes from agriculture, along with the businesses who supply them. The stories have quoted irrigators, irrigation district employees, and business owners blaming endangered species for their water shortages. The truth is that irrigators have 88% of all local water rights, only a small portion of which is required to remain instream.

I understand anger and frustration, but it should be properly directed. Let’s start with the irrigators themselves and 100+ years of wasteful water practices. Highly inefficient irrigation methods continue to be widely used, the worst of which is flood irrigation. Imagine a lawn the size of a city block, or larger, watered with a fire hose.

How about irrigators selling water to fill private lakes and build new resorts? Private water ski and recreation lakes? Really? Apparently, there’s enough irrigation water available to supply them. Look at The Thornburgh Resort under development near Redmond is slated to have recreational lakes, three golf courses, swimming pools, hotels, and permanent housing, adding up to enormous amounts of water usage. Thornburgh claims to have secured irrigation water rights for all of this.

Anger should be directed at the Oregon Water Resources Department and their interpretation of the beneficial use without waste provision embedded in the water right.

How is water granted for irrigation but sold to private lakes and golf courses being used for the benefit of all Oregonians?

How is watering a field simply to maintain a water right beneficial use without waste? Watering a private lawn and landscaping is good enough? Really? Why are we taxpayers subsidizing this by paying for canal piping?

The anger should be directed at our county, state, and federal representatives who continue to ignore this issue.

We are in a water crisis, and they are approving questionable developments and not working on timely solutions.

Piping canals at taxpayer expense will cost hundreds of millions and will take decades to complete. We need better approaches. Water law is complex, but laws are meant to be updated as our needs change. Current laws were written over 100 years ago and are not remotely reflective of today’s reality. Where’s our political leadership?

Short of overdue, wholesale changes in water law, meaningful solutions can be obtained with a few modifications.

First, require the reasonable definition and enforcement of the beneficial use without waste provision in a water right. Water rights for irrigation were granted with the idea that the owners of the water, the citizens of Oregon, would get a benefit from the right. Settlers from wagon trains get water, grow food and sell it to the rest of us to eat. That was the general idea; it needs to be enforced.

Secondly, charge for water. While the citizens of Oregon own the water, we are not paid for it. Irrigation districts charge their patrons for maintaining their systems, but the water itself is free. Charging a fee for water would help redirect it from landscaping and hobby farms to economically productive ones. The fee could be on a sliding scale. Irrigators who have higher per acre economic productivity, and thereby demonstrate more beneficial use, would pay at the low end of the scale. The considerable number of irrigators who primarily spread water to preserve their water rights or for hobby farming would pay more, or they could redirect their water to others who can beneficially use it. Funds raised in this manner could be used to fund water conservation and habitat restoration projects. It would be a win-win.

There’s also something called global warming that contributes to drought and reduced water supply. Endangered species are not causing our planet to heat up, we are. Perhaps some anger should also be shifted in that direction.


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An aerial view of a body of water.