Guest column: Solutions, not shaming, will benefit farmers, fish and community

October 14, 2021
Guest column: Solutions, not shaming, will benefit farmers, fish and community

I’m concerned about a narrative circulating accusing Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID) of irresponsible irrigation management and shaming the district for being a senior water rights holder. The accusations aren’t based on science or facts, but rather on emotion and personal opinions.

There are individuals actively spreading misinformation about COID that undermines conservation and progress toward solutions in the Deschutes Basin.

Their storyline:

  • Shames COID for its old water delivery system and modernization efforts.
  • Argues piping is too expensive and takes too long.
  • Advocates taking water away from small lifestyle farms.
  • Argues North Unit Irrigation District (NUID) should be prioritized to receive irrigation over COID landowners due to the assumption that COID landowners don’t productively utilize the water.

The problem? This rhetoric makes a lot of assumptions and offers zero solutions.

I want to take this opportunity to debunk the misinformation being perpetuated about COID.

COID is doing more to change the culture of the Deschutes Basin with its actions and projects than any other organization in our history. Under Craig Horrell’s leadership, the district has made a proactive effort to conserve water to improve flows while sustaining agriculture.

The 100-plus-year-old district has shown itself willing and able to adapt despite rapid change and intense criticism. COID has done everything it said it would do to mitigate low flows in the Deschutes River.

Why are we shaming an organization championing efforts and securing $110 million in federal funding (PL-566) for irrigation modernization projects? As taxpayers, we are going to fund these projects whether they go to Mississippi or California. Rather than shaming COID for piping, we should be celebrating the fact that COID led the effort to bring millions of dollars to our region.

COID isn’t a bully wasting water. As a senior water rights holder, COID uses various conservation tools to provide water for food, farms and fish. There’s no magic bullet, and fixing the river will take a comprehensive strategy. COID is implementing these strategies:

  • Large piping projects that create significant water savings that will go to NUID and other junior water rights holders. Piping the entire Pilot Butte Canal will save 90,000-acre feet per year, which is half of Wickiup Reservoir.
  • Incentivizing water users to conserve water and upgrade their water-delivery infrastructure by offering on-farm low-interest loans that can be paired with grants for efficiency upgrades. (Remember, on-farm improvements are voluntary efforts by landowners. When combined with large-scale piping projects, on-farm improvements will create systemwide results in less time.)
  • Encouraging patrons to lease their water instream to the benefit of the river. It is important to note water marketing is not a short -term fix as suggested.

This tool will be of benefit to the river eventually; however, COID needs to improve the entire system first by piping the canals. Without an entire system improvement, water marketing starves the system and hurts the farmers.

Remember, we are working with a century-old system. COID critics are asking, “Does it really make sense to spend hundreds of millions of public dollars to pipe canals and pressurize water for small lifestyle farms? Many of which do not need the water to support a farming livelihood.”

I challenge this sentiment by asking whose place is it to put value on a lifestyle? COID delivers water per its water rights.

The water goes with the land. It is not anyone’s right to decide how water is used.

I believe COID strives to work with patrons to use water efficiently and/or move it to a higher/better use. COID’s water delivery systems are a win for farmers, wildlife, rivers and our community.

I challenge critics to redirect their criticism and focus efforts on partnering with COID to secure additional funding for conservation and advocate for policy changes. Be a part of the solution and embrace partnerships that ensure water reliability in a way that does the most good for farmers, the community, and the environment.

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