Guest column: North Unit and COID farmers partner to get more water in the Deschutes River

March 6, 2020
Guest column: North Unit and COID farmers partner to get more water in the Deschutes River

In 1989, I moved with my family to Madras to farm full time on 350 acres. At the time, sustainable farming wasn’t yet in the agriculture lexicon, and water conservation practices were only beginning to modernize.

As new farmers and North Unit Irrigation District patrons, we were eager to find ways to be more efficient with the two most precious natural resources that enable our livelihood: water and soil.

To improve our water efficiency, we implemented drip irrigation, scientific irrigation scheduling and wireless irrigation monitoring.

For soil health, we began practicing no-till and minimum tillage in our crop rotation, and we incorporated cover crops to reduce our fertilizer use and preserve soil health. Today, we grow vegetable seed crops, Kentucky bluegrass seed, peppermint oil, hay and grain on more than 600 acres, and we continue to improve water use efficiency while increasing productivity.

But when it comes to improving our water efficiency, there is only so much individual farms like ours can do. While the changes we made work on a small scale, alone they are not enough.

Large-scale modernization of water delivery systems will have a far greater impact on ensuring water reliability for farmers, the community, and the environment. That is why we support piping the Central Oregon Irrigation District’s 100-year-old, leaky, open main canal. Water saved from seepage below and evaporation above the canal can now go to the farm or stay in the river to help balance year-round conditions for fish and wildlife habitat along the Deschutes River.

When COID pipes its main canal, there is a direct and significant benefit to NUID farmers like us, who are junior water right holders. The amount of water that is saved through COID piping and other conservation measures will be shared with NUID and other junior water right holders to ensure that farmers have the water they need, even in dry years. NUID will then be able to make water available from our storage in Wickiup Reservoir to increase winter flows in the Upper Deschutes.

We understand piping isn’t cheap. But thanks to the work of U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, we’ve secured federal funding for the piping project and we’re working closely with the experts at Farmers Conservation Alliance to identify all the benefits we can achieve by modernizing our water infrastructure.

Some argue that taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to update our antiquated, centuries-old irrigation systems.

But those funds are earmarked for conservation efforts somewhere, and taking care of the Deschutes River has far-reaching public and environmental benefits.

I’m proud of the work we’ve done to adopt sustainable water practices on our relatively small farm in Madras over the past three decades.

But the water efficiencies we’ve achieved are just a drop in the proverbial bucket to what we can achieve when we unite multiple stakeholders in a common vision to modernize our entire water delivery system.

NUID and COID are taking a collaborative, comprehensive approach to improve water reliability in a way that does the most good for farmers, the community, and the environment.

We are going about it the old-fashioned way of neighbors helping neighbors.

As a farmer and fellow citizen of this special place we call home, the need to work together to preserve our most precious natural resources can’t be understated.

Marty Richards of Madras is an NUID board member, a family farmer and the owner of Fox Hollow Ranch.

Share this post