Guest column: The way we use the Deschutes River is wrong

May 23, 2017
Guest column: The way we use the Deschutes River is wrong

By George Wuerthner

Amid the growing dispute over water use and the health of the Deschutes River, two important factors have been ignored.

First, most of the water removed for irrigation for “local” agriculture does not grow food for direct human consumption.

When people hear that we are using water for local farmers, the average person thinks of rows of corn, lettuce or other crops you might see for sale at the local farmer’s market.

But that is fantasy since the bulk of our water is used to grow forage for cattle and other livestock.

For instance, in Deschutes County, according to the state Department of Agriculture, less than a 1,000 acres is growing veggies, melon, potatoes and sweet potatoes, which may require irrigation water. By contrast over, 20,000 acres is growing hay and alfalfa — very water-loving and water-intensive crops.

In Crook County, it is even more skewed with only 52 acres growing veggies and so forth, while nearly 40,000 acres is used for irrigated hay and alfalfa production.

Neither of these figures includes the acreage devoted to irrigated pasture that is common in the Deschutes River Basin.

Does it make sense to use precious water to grow hay in the desert to feed cows?

Maybe it made sense 100 years ago to give preference for water to agricultural users, but leaving water in the Deschutes River for fish, spotted frogs, recreation and even saving endangered salmon and steelhead downstream is far more valuable than growing a water-loving crop like alfalfa to waste on cows.

Second, water in Oregon is held as a public trust by the state on behalf of all Oregonians.

In other words, WE, the public, own the water in the Deschutes River, and we can decide how to use it. Indeed, one could argue the state is failing to protect the “Public Trust” by allowing our water to be wasted growing cattle food.

Irrigators’ so-called “water rights” does not confer a right to water. Rather it only refers to who gets to remove water from a stream—assuming the public—you and I decide we want to see it removed.

Recently, I received a message from Sen. Jeff Merkley proudly informing me that he has secured $150 million dollars for the “irrigation districts … to ramp up their important work in water conservation and fish and wildlife restoration, such as improving flows for the spotted frog in Central Oregon, and ensure that farmers and ranchers continue to have the water they need while making progress on environmental restoration at the same time.”

While I am sure the senator means well, I question why I need to have my tax dollars spent improving the efficiency of private businesses.

Furthermore, if we wanted to improve water conservation for the Deschutes River, a more intelligent expenditure of that money would be to buy out ranchers/farmers who are wasting OUR water growing hay and permanently return that water to the river.

We, the public, would be far better off keeping water in our river for fish, wildlife and recreation.

In terms of simple economics, growing trout and salmon, and providing clean water in town, as well as downstream, is a much more sensible option than maintaining an archaic industry barely functioning.

— George Wuerthner lives in Bend.

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