North Unit farmers seek lifeline from state amid historic drought

November 12, 2021
North Unit farmers seek lifeline from state amid historic drought

Farmers and ranchers in Jefferson County struggling to stay afloat amid a crippling drought and reduced water supply are seeking state relief. One possible solution could be forgiveness of water bill payments for the next one to two years or direct payments to farmers.

Giving farmers a pass on their water bills was discussed on the sidelines of a meeting Friday held with two congressmen, Jefferson County commissioners and officials from North Unit Irrigation District.

Extreme drought has pushed many farmers to the brink of bankruptcy in Jefferson County.

The past several growing seasons have seen farmers leave half of their farms fallow due to the lack of water. The inability to plant half their crops has slashed revenues, making it difficult to pay rents, mortgages, payments for equipment and other bills associated with farming.

Jefferson County farmers pay irrigation bills of around $70 per acre, according to Josh Bailey, general manager for North Unit Irrigation District, which supplies water to the area. Bailey said his irrigation district has requested $30 million in aid to help with emergency drought relief.

Bailey added that no decision has been made on how the funds would be dispersed if they were received. But payments could be made directly to farmers or for emergency drought relief. Around $150 million has been set aside for emergency disaster relief, to help with wildfire, ice storms and drought across the state, he said.

“The (state) emergency board has not voted on how to spend the money yet. We are waiting for them to do that and North Unit requested $30 million,” said Bailey, referring to the the official panel of state lawmakers that meets between sessions.

“If we were to get that money, it would be a combination of different things such as funding the district or passing that money on to farmers.”

Jos Poland, a Jefferson County dairy farmer, said many farmers in the county are so financially constrained that paying their water bills won’t be possible. State aid to fund water bills would help farmers, he said.

Funding support is “absolutely necessary because if there aren’t enough people to pay their bill, North Unit could fall apart, and then you don’t have anything going on here,” said Poland, who supplies organic milk to Eberhard’s Dairy Products and Darigold.

North Unit, which irrigates around 58,000 acres of farmland, is a junior water rights holder in Central Oregon and has storage rights to the water at Wickiup Reservoir. Wickiup has run dry the past two years due to a combination of severe drought and greater winter releases to support Oregon spotted frog habitat.

Speaking to a group of around 20 farmers and ranchers on Friday at the Central Oregon Livestock Auction Yard near Madras, Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, said he is open to seeking aid for farmers and ranchers in Central Oregon. Assistance could come from remaining COVID-19 relief funding supplied by the state.

“This would be considered emergency funds, similar to what happens when there is a hurricane or tsunami,” said Bentz, who represents all of Central and Eastern Oregon and parts of Southern Oregon. “The money would not be available instantly. It would come through insurance over a period of time.”

Bentz was also supportive of a plan to build a pump station on Lake Billy Chinook to draw water from the lake to fill Haystack Reservoir, instead of pulling water from the Crooked River.

The project would allow North Unit to use its full Crooked River water rights.

Mike Britton, executive manager for North Unit, said that the pumping project will cost $300 million to $400 million to build with an annual operating cost of $3 million to $5 million.

“It’s a heavy lift for everyone in this room to pull a project like that, but having said that, with trillions of dollars coming out of infrastructure packages, now is the time to take advantage of that and get a project like that done.”

Britton said before the district invests more heavily in the development of that project, the irrigation district must first get approvals, or letters of nonopposition, from Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which jointly manage the Pelton Round-Butte Dam complex that created Lake Billy Chinook.

“Once we have those two things in our hands, we will be able to run full blast, but until we have that it doesn’t make sense to go out and spend millions of dollars only to have somebody come back and say, you know, it’s a nice project but it’s not something we can support,” said Britton.

Britton added that the pumping project so far does not appear to have any strong opposition from environmentalists.

“The folks that typically sue us or the government, I have spoken with them and they won’t come out and support the project, but they think it’s a great idea,” said Britton.

“It checks the boxes for a lot of the issues that are facing the basin and quite honestly I think some of our enemies could be allies in this type of a project.”


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