Guest Column: Row together to find river solutions

November 26, 2019
Guest Column: Row together to find river solutions

BY Mike Weber

French philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre said: “Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat.”

The agricultural community in Central Oregon — farmers, local businesses, and irrigation districts — along with dozens of partners, has spent the past decade collectively rowing the proverbial boat to improve the health of the Deschutes River while preserving family farms and our rural way of life.

During this time, a multispecies Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) has been developed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The 870-page HCP represents a voluntary, proactive, collaborative approach to address fish and wildlife conservation and water use in the Deschutes Basin over the next 30 years. Currently, the HCP is undergoing a public comment period.

Improved flows in Whychus Creek and the Middle Deschutes, both of which had been dewatered in the past, are testimony to work done in partnership by irrigation districts and conservation groups to benefit our rivers. While the Upper Deschutes is more challenging, we want to continue this work and build on these successes.

However, some groups are using the HCP to rock the boat. They are using the HCP as a platform to attack farmers and create division.

As a farmer and river advocate, I want more people in the boat rowing in the same direction. If we fail to work together and the matter gets tied up in the courts, we all lose a crucial opportunity to address this long standing problem.

Contrary to some assertions, the irrigation districts are in fact working directly with each other and employing a variety of conservation tools to improve the health of the Deschutes River. Some of these tools include water sharing, water leasing, reservoir management, piping, and on-farm improvements.

In addition, over $35 million has been secured for large-scale investments that will transform antiquated irrigation infrastructure. These irrigation modernization projects will allow us to share the water for sustainable agriculture and for improved river flows and ecological benefits. The experience of other irrigation districts in Central Oregon and elsewhere shows us that piping enables other water conservation tools.

Like the farmers who worked side by side and hand-dug the irrigation canal system over 100 years ago, farmers today are working together for the greater good of the Deschutes Basin. On December 7, 2017, Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID) and North Unit Irrigation District (NUID) entered into a shared agreement. The agreement outlines the districts’ commitment to incorporate all the tools at their disposal to share water, allowing NUID to leave more water in the river during the winter for fish and wildlife purposes.

COID’s conservation measures will generate a more reliable water supply for NUID. NUID will then be able to make water available from its storage in Wickiup Reservoir to increase winter flows in the Upper Deschutes River.

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