Guest column: What it means to be a junior water right holder

June 18, 2019
Guest column: What it means to be a junior water right holder

By Gary Harris

This is my 50th year farming in Madras. I’m the son of an Idaho farmer who came to the North Unit Irrigation District (NUID) in 1948. Father took the first delivery of water on the Agency Plains north of Madras in June of 1948 after the Willow Creek siphon was repaired. He was always concerned if NUID would have enough water to raise the crops in all years.

NUID is the second largest irrigation district in Oregon and is junior to the other seven Deschutes Basin irrigation districts. NUID’S 1916 water rights were the last issued and received the smallest per acre allotment. With the best elevation and climate Madras farms have raised the highest economic value crops in Central Oregon: ladino clover, potatoes, grass seed, peppermint, garlic seed, alfalfa, fresh radish, onion and carrot seed.

Now, because of the drought and spotted frog augmented flows, junior North Unit District Irrigation is suffering the most. Our Wickiup Reservoir failed to fill, and our board has set this year’s allotment at 18 inches on Deschutes acres and nine inches on Crooked River rights. While other districts within the basin with 72-inch allotments will receive normal deliveries (equivalent to 72” of rain delivered in the six month irrigation season). It takes at a minimum of over 30 inches to grow most crops.

My farm, like many of my neighbors, must idle crop ground. I have 578.1 acres with water rights and will fallow 182.3 acres or 31.5% of my cropland. However, I paid for the full allotment of $43,112.91. Competing in a world market makes this unsustainable.

For the greatest agricultural economy in Central Oregon to continue to thrive several changes must take place.

Oregon water law must be amended to allow intra-district transfers of abundant water from upstream districts to NUID. One acre of Deschutes County districts’ water will water 3 acres in Jefferson County.

Beneficial use is when water is used for agriculture. When watered cropland becomes urbanized those water rights should go to the junior water right holders as the law was intended, and not held solely for power generation or revenue producing via instream leasing.

Water diversion from storage in NUID’s Wickiup Reservoir to meet “The Habitat Conservation Plan” must be realistic. Considering factors as the drought that NUID has been facing, as well as timelines for completing conservation practices. Continued stored water takings will be catastrophic for NUID’s farmers and its community.

The goal of The Coalition for the Deschutes, lawmakers, and Oregon Water Resources on conserving water in the Deschutes Basin is a priority. It can only happen when those districts with the greatest potential to conserve water do so, and money that is needed to complete those projects is available. Today, funding is a challenge and takes time.

Water is precious and costly for Madras North Unit farmers. We have implemented: 24-hour water measurement and delivery, tail water recovery, gated pipe, ditch piping, low pressure pivots and drip irrigation. As the frog and upper Deschutes instream flow requirements increase, all districts must conserve and share the burden.

Should Jefferson County farmers be the only irrigators to suffer because of the frog? “Junior” does mean junior; but what business can take a 25-30% reduction in its income stream and survive? Our seed warehouses, fertilizer and equipment dealers, our employees, plus Madras and Culver retailers also have a stake in the game. Saving the basin for frogs, fish and environmental concerns can’t be just about NUID. It is about everyone in the basin sharing for the greater good and changing their past ways. Water is recognized as the life blood that benefits agriculture, which in turn provides for wildfire buffers, wildlife habitat and helps the environment. The choice is farms versus houses and urban sprawl.

Junior Water Right holder, but hopeful.

— Gary Harris is a Madras farmer, current Jefferson County Farm Bureau vice president and served on the Land Conservation and Development Commission from 1996-2004.

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