Pumpkin king is pushing water boundaries

November 4, 2021
Pumpkin king is pushing water boundaries

Matt Lisignoli's efforts to transfer between districts may break new ground

The moment Matt Lisignoli stepped onto this property near Smith Rock 20 years ago, he envisioned the grand pumpkin playground it becomes each fall for families all over Central Oregon ."Every year I get to start with a blank canvas," says Lisignoli, who designs corn mazes and pumpkin cannons, hayrides, pony rides and train rides. "It's pretty amazing when the public shows up to see how it all operates as one piece of machinery."

Water scarcity threatens pumpkin patch

Lisignoli tells how the drought and centuries-old water laws endangered this annual fall festival. This summer he ran out of water for his pumpkins. "I can't do this without water," he says. While his Smith Rock Ranch is in Deschutes County, Lisignoli does his serious farming in Jefferson County. Central Oregon Irrigation District in Deschutes County holds the most senior water rights in the Deschutes Basin and therefore the most water, North Unit Irrigation District in Jefferson County holds the most junior water rights and the least water.

Desperate for water to finish his pumpkin crop, Lisignoli tried to transfer unused water from his Deschutes County property to his pumpkin fields near Culver. He hit bureaucratic quicksand. "My request had to go out for public notice for 11 days," he says. "It went into the public notice section of the Oregonian. Who's going to see that?"

By the time the 11 days were up, he'd run out of water. "Monday, I called up in a panic because I was out of water. Everybody I called was on vacation. I couldn't get answers from anybody." Fortunately, another Jefferson County farmer offered his surplus water to Lisignoli, which took care of his pumpkins. By the time the Oregon Water Resources Department processed the paperwork, Lisignoli had only seven days to use the water. "The regulators are out of touch with what our needs are," says Lisignoli, "the people that are actually funding their existence."

Straddling two water districts

This year's water scarcity magnified the difference between the haves and the have nots when it comes to water in the Deschutes Basin. Straddling two water districts gives Lisignoli a unique vantage point to compare. COID established its water rights in 1900 and as the basin's most senior water rights holder drinks the water first. Six other irrigation districts pull from the canal before it gets to NUID, which established water rights in 1913. As the most junior water rights holder, NUID has the least reliable water supply.

COID patrons get more water than NUID patrons. A lot more. The districts deliver their water differently; NUID measures water based on volume (acre feet), whereas COID measures based on rate (cubic feet per second), which makes it hard to compare. In a typical year, NUID patrons can have about 2 acre feet per acre delivered to their fields. COID patrons typically have access to a maximum of 4.5 acre feet per acre – double the amount. An acre foot covers an acre of land with one foot of water. "The farmers up in Jefferson County are professional farmers."

Lisignoli says less water forces his North Unit colleagues to be more efficient. "They manage and monitor their water use very carefully. "By comparison, Lisignoli observes, for many COID patrons, farming is a lifestyle not a livelihood." They have a job in town. They flood irrigate. It washes across the road into the neighbor's field," says Lisignoli. "There's a lot of waste of water down here." Lisignoli thinks that should change, and he's not alone, but that change requires delicate diplomacy.

Don't mess with water laws

No one is alive today who was around when districts claimed their water rights, but those rights pass on with the property. As water grows more precious, the rights appreciate in value and the disparity between senior and junior users grows wider. "It's a right and they bought the property with the right to that water," says Paul Kasberger, chair of the COID board and Lisignoli's neighbor. "And when people bought the ground in North Unit, that's the right they had. They got what they paid for."

Kasberger says the person who paid for that water right should be able to use it as they want and messing with water laws is asking for trouble. "When you open water laws up, you open them up for everybody to change them," says Kasberger. "Now you're looking at recreational, environmental, restoration, municipal have the ability to change water laws that protect agriculture."

Even though changes in the water law could benefit North Unit farmers, NUID Executive Manager Mike Britton doesn't want to go there. "Fortunately, we have a good working relationship with COID," says Britton. "We just have to keep that relationship solid and keep working with them in the future because really that's where the water's coming from at the end of the day." "Systems built throughout the state depend on that rigorous water law structure," says Kyle Gorman with the OWRD. "If you change some fundamental principal about water law that could upset the structure, it could be chaotic or injurious to some water rights holders."

Making the system more flexible

Still, Gorman calls the system unfair. "Anyone with a senior priority date gets all their water first. They don't have to share with anyone else," says Gorman. "So that's unfair by its nature." Even Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Chang who represents the area covered by COID calls for distributing the water more equitably. "North Unit is some of the most productive agricultural land in the whole Deschutes Basin," says Chang. "Out of a sense of fairness, the people who are using water most efficiently to produce the highest value crops should have more water reliability."

Lisignoli says his efforts to move his water from one district to another may have broken the ice. "The only good thing about all of this," he says, "is it showed everybody where the weaknesses were in the system." The administrative nightmare Lisignoli faced with just one single district-to-district transfer would only intensify with multiple transfers. "The ideal would be for a senior district to collect a pool of water and make it available to the junior districts," says Britton. "And that way it would become part of the system versus trying to pigeonhole water from parts of the district."

Current law discourages COID farmers from sharing their water because they can lose their water rights if they don't use it. Since 2006, Deschutes River Conservancy has paid farmers for putting their excess water back into the river. "We are interested in exploring ways for water to move more flexibly between water users and to the river," says DRC Executive Director Kate Fitzpatrick. "But these programs need to be carefully crafted to meet the needs of all interested parties."

The highest bidder gets the water. Senior water rights holders aren't going to give their water away for free. All the other six districts in the basin get first rights to any shared water before it gets to Jefferson County, the most junior user. "Selling water, that's when you start leap frogging these junior water systems," says Kasberger. "And then it becomes the highest bidder and that's where we start getting into trouble." Kasberger expects prices will get out of reach for most farmers. Gorman thinks the market will set the price. "If it gets too high, nobody's going to pay that much," says Gorman. "So, the person who's selling it at that price has to lower it."

In everyone's best interest

Even senior rights water users have an interest in sharing water throughout the basin. The Habitat Conservation Plan all the districts signed in January requires releasing increasingly more water to preserve wildlife habitat each year, water that cannot be used for irrigation. "What the HCP will do is improve the efficiency of irrigation overall in the basin," says Chang. "It will modernize our irrigation structure by piping main canals and lateral canals and implementing on-farm efficiency." "As senior users, we put a lot more work into efficiencies," says Kasberger. "And that water in turn was spilled to North Unit because of the excellent job of our ditch riders." During this past year, both COID and the Swalley Irrigation District shared water with farmers in North Unit. Piping the canal and on-farm efficiencies in other districts will provide more water for NUID farmers. All options are on the table with many stakeholders at the table: legislators, regulators, irrigators, and environmental protectors. Incremental changes may have incremental results. "I would like people to know that this is serious what's going on," says Lisignoli. He says families often thank him for the autumn experience he created for them, but Smith Rock Ranch won't survive without water. "It's in everybody's interest to rally together to figure out how to make this work to keep everybody healthy and in business."

Pat Kruis

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