May 22, 2009 - Bend Bulletin Seeking A Stronger Voice For Deschutes Water

May 29, 2009
May 22, 2009 - Bend Bulletin Seeking A Stronger Voice For Deschutes Water

Seeking a stronger voice for Deschutes water
By Nick Budnick / The Bulletin

Published: May 22. 2009 4:00AM PST SALEM — Central Oregon may consider itself a leader in craft beer, but local officials can’t help but envy the Umatilla River Basin when it comes to another liquid.

For the last several years, the water lobby in the Umatilla basin in Northeast Oregon has driven an aggressive agenda in Salem to pump water from the Columbia River to help farmers, a plan known as “Oasis.”

While the idea has thus far been blocked by environmental concerns, to take the edge off Umatilla’s thirst, Gov. Ted Kulongoski and state lawmakers have established a pilot program to produce more water for the basin — and even new water-supply funding legislation to pay for such things as lining open irrigation canals.

The Deschutes River Basin, by comparison, has been an afterthought at the Capitol in recent years — and first-term Deschutes County Commissioner Alan Unger wants to change that. The goal is to help make sure the region is getting money for its own water-supply projects, as well as protecting the regional water program that local officials agree is the heart of the area’s economy.

“Every job and home and everything else depends on water,” sad Patrick Griffiths, water resources coordinator for the city of Bend.

Unger, the former mayor of Redmond, is spearheading a push to take a fairly informal group of irrigation districts, cities, tribes and environmental interests called the Deschutes Water Alliance and turn it into a more official group that is not afraid to flex its muscle.

“Then we can speak with one voice, whether it’s in Washington, D.C., or in Salem, or in the Deschutes basin,” he said, “I think we would be powerful if we were able to do that.”

Tod Heisler, of the Deschutes River Conservancy, agreed. Umatilla’s heightened influence in Salem has contributed to a feeling of missed opportunities for Central Oregon, he said, adding that the water alliance hasn’t fulfilled its potential since it was formed in 2004.

“Those guys (in Umatilla) did a good job. We should have done the same,” he said. “There is some feeling that we were ahead of everyone else and we failed to complete the assignment, if you will.”

He added that what remains is to “bring it to a more political level. We want to put the Deschutes agenda forward more assertively, so it’s understood that there’s a lot at stake here, a lot of issues, and we want to have a local consensus. … We think that will very much strengthen our hand.”

The alliance formed in 2004 to plan for future regional water needs. It is composed of the eight cities and seven irrigation districts of the Deschutes River Basin, as well as the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the nonprofit conservancy, which was formed to restore flows to the Deschutes River.

The group’s most visible product is the water mitigation bank overseen by Heisler’s group. The water bank is at the heart of a groundwater mitigation program that put an end to a moratorium on new groundwater pumping in the region between 1998 and 2002.

The Deschutes groundwater program requires that for every gallon of water pumped out of the Deschutes basin, another gallon must be pumped into the waterways to make up for it.

The program is widely considered a national model. But Heisler and Unger say the region has not gone far enough. As demand for the state’s limited water grows, the alliance wants to make sure Central Oregon is not forgotten.

Unger has been working to set up a group structured like a regional transportation commission. He and others have been circulating a draft outline, called a memorandum of understanding, which would create a forum of roughly 30 members, including elected officials as well as irrigation district, tribal and environmental representatives.

Once formed, the group would figure out how to fund its efforts, including hiring of staff to work on its agenda.

The agenda would include things like better reservoir management and securing funding to line more canals to aid in conservation efforts.

Heisler said that above all, the group needs to get better organized if it intends to persuade the Legislature to renew the Deschutes groundwater program, which under state law will expire in 2014.

The program’s expiration date “creates a lot of anxiety among people in the basin,” he added. “We know that if we don’t get this group together now, it’s going to be pretty chaotic in the future, and we’re going to have much less chance for a positive outcome.”

Nick Budnick can be reached at 503-566-2839 or at


Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2008

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