Guest Column: Water bank gives hope for the future of farming

February 10, 2022
Guest Column: Water bank gives hope for the future of farming

By Martin Richards

For irrigators throughout Central Oregon — especially in North Unit Irrigation District (NUID), where I farm — 2021 was the worst season on record for water supplies. Given current reservoir levels and snowpack, farmers in NUID and other districts in the basin are now facing a 2022 season that could be even worse. Below normal precipitation for nine of the last 10 years has depleted storage reservoirs and reduced the capacity of the basin to recharge and recover from persistent drought.

What’s worse, demand is at an all-time high. Dry conditions and record summer heat waves have reduced natural forage for livestock and have required more water to keep crops alive and family farms in business. In addition, irrigation districts throughout the Deschutes and Crooked River basins have committed to a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to improve the health of the river ecosystems for threatened and endangered species. To comply with the HCP, our irrigation districts are working to meet targets for winter river flows. Flows are achieved by releasing water from irrigation storage reservoirs, such as Wickiup, which ultimately reduce summer irrigation supplies.

NUID, based in Jefferson County, includes some of the most productive farmland, highest value crops, and greatest irrigation efficiency in the region. Unfortunately, because NUID holds junior water rights, we are also the first to have water allotments reduced when there is a deficit. The bottom line is everyone suffers during a drought, but the farms and families in NUID and Jefferson County feel the pain first and are hurt the most.

All these unprecedented factors have forced NUID and our partners in the region to think outside the box and explore many different short-term and long-term solutions. The list of options we’ve considered include major water conservation investments at the district level, improvements to on-farm efficiency, construction of additional reservoir storage, establishing a point of diversion at Lake Billy Chinook, and others.

One idea that offers some promise is a water bank that would allow patrons in Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID) to help NUID. Effectively, NUID would pay COID patrons for water they choose not to use during the drought and the water would transfer between irrigation districts.

Currently, the concept is only in a pilot phase to determine the potential level of participation and identify obstacles to implementing and scaling the water bank. Enrollment and participation would be restricted to limit the impact to COID’s normal operations.

The pilot water bank project is being facilitated by Deschutes River Conservancy with the goal of “paying back” some of the water transferred from COID to NUID to increase winter flows in the upper Deschutes River.

I encourage you to learn more and contact your irrigation district office if you are interested in participating in the pilot project for 2022 or in the future. Farm families and our agriculture economy is struggling and facing a challenging road ahead. However, the pilot water bank is one more example of an innovative and collaborative solution that gives us optimism that the rivers, our rural communities, and irrigated agriculture can survive and thrive in the future.Martin Richards is the chairman of North Unit Irrigation District.

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