Rising population, shrinking water: Central Oregon works to solve chronic water troubles

March 28, 2024
Rising population, shrinking water: Central Oregon works to solve chronic water troubles

By Michael Kohn, The Bulletin

Water shortages and groundwater problems have been a chronic issue in Central Oregon for over a century. Soaring regional growth over the past two decades won’t make the challenges any easier to resolve.

As this region’s population increases, so will the number of straws pulling on a finite amount of water resources.

Respondents to a recent survey on growth conducted by The Bulletin universally said unsustainable growth threatens Central Oregon’s resources, especially water. The consensus was that city and county officials must slow the development of subdivisions, destination resorts and golf courses or face perpetual water shortages.

Slowing growth could take a collaborative effort, like the one underway by this basin’s irrigation districts to conserve and share water. Otherwise, Central Oregon could end up playing a game of whack-a-mole, corralling one water problem while another emerges, again and again.

Kate Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit, says individuals need to think collectively and bring their creativity.

“Drought and climate change are going to force us to look at things differently,” she said.

How did we get here?

In the late 1990s, runoff from massive snowpack piling up over several consecutive winters threatened to overflow Wickiup Reservoir southwest of Bend.“There was so much water. There was so much inflow. There was so much snow. It was just remarkable,” said Kyle Gorman, region manager for Oregon Water Resources Department for more than 20 years until his retirement last year.

But the good times ended in the early 2000s as the climate shifted to drier and warmer conditions, a pattern exacerbated by human-caused climate change.

Since the early 2000s, dry conditions in Central Oregon — including a few years of historic drought — have emptied reservoirs, dried up springs and forced farmers out of business.

Wickiup Reservoir

The slow-moving disaster is wreaking havoc above and below ground by melting glaciers in the Central Cascades and lowering the thousand-foot-thick Deschutes aquifer. It’s also drying up forests, causing an increase in wildfire risk. Farmers have borne the brunt of the water shortages but grocery shoppers also feel the pinch at the checkout counter as scarcity leads to inflation. Then there’s the threatened bull trout, Oregon spotted frog and other species whose numbers cannot recover under stressful conditions.But out of any challenge comes solutions — especially for resourceful Central Oregonians — and this time is no different.

Since the early 2000s Central Oregon has been taking steps toward improved water conservation, thanks mainly to unlikely partnerships between conservationists and this region’s agricultural community.

The Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative, formed in 2020 with 40 members, includes anglers and irrigation districts, state agencies and nonprofits, all fighting the same fight to conserve water.

Those collaborative efforts have helped irrigation districts fund canal-to-pipe projects to conserve water for farmers and the Deschutes River. Over $100 million has been raised to replace open-air canals with sealed pipes. Still, there’s a long way to go and piping projects will continue for decades.

“Having those drought conditions has given folks an opportunity to see what avenues, what practices, what conservation is necessary to survive a dry period just like we went through,” said Gorman.

Navigating water law

Efforts to collaborate on water have become necessary because of water laws — created more than a century ago — that result in an unequal distribution of water. Older irrigation districts receive more water than younger ones due to the longstanding first-in-time, first-in-right water law doctrine.

The rules do not value commercial agriculture over hobby farmers. Retired landowners in senior districts can water vast acres of lawn while farmers in junior districts trying to run a business and feed people have barely any water for their crops.“Those kinds of conversations came out of that severe drought period,” said Gorman.

Solutions involve workarounds to find a balance between the senior and junior water rights holders.

Fitzpatrick says her nonprofit is developing a basin-wide water bank to move water around more easily. Water banks and incentives to give up water are acceptable options for most Oregonians, changing deeply entrenched water law is not.

“Politicians especially want to support the voluntary, collaborative market-based tools, because they are a politically an easier thing than wholesale change that is going to create ripples,” Fitzpatrick said.Solutions to water law restrictions are not all new. Because water was overallocated by the turn of the 20th century, and rivers got the short end of the stick, Oregon passed the Instream Water Rights Act in 1987 to help restore streamflows. An instream lease allows a water rights holder to not use his or her water and instead leave it in the river while maintaining their water rights. It’s also a good example of finding a solution to an entrenched law that isn’t going away but needs to be modified.

“It’s just pragmatic to think about working around the edges and tinkering with it, rather than believing you could take it on wholesale,” said Tod Heisler, rivers advocate for Central Oregon LandWatch.

Enter, the frog

Wildflower seed farmer Sean Vibbert contends that drought is not the biggest problem, he has faced it before and his farm in Jefferson County survived. Unequal water laws also aren’t an insurmountable obstacle.“We had enough water, two feet of water is adequate for our project,” said Vibbert.But Vibbert says the latest threat to water supply is the biggest threat so far. In 2014, federal wildlife officials declared the Oregon spotted frog as threatened and that move required Vibbert’s district to give up some of its stored water to improve habitat for the frog. It made their already tight water supply even tighter, causing half of Jefferson County’s farmland to be left fallow. It’s a crisis most people don’t notice, he said, and a solution seems a long way off.

“People are going to have to starve first, that is the plain and simple truth, we have it too good here in America,” he said.

The hundreds of millions being spent on piping canals are a possible solution.

But by the time they are complete — and saved water can be delivered to irrigators — many of today’s cattle ranchers, hay farmers and carrot seed growers will be out of business.That slow death of farming communities is already underway in Jefferson County, where some farmers have thrown in the towel and the number of ‘For Sale’ signs along the highway begins to grow.

Conservationists say the protection of ecosystems, the frog and other species do not have to come at the cost of farms and the time it takes to pipe the canals shouldn’t be an obstacle. The belief is that smart water management, on-farm water system improvements and water banks remain the best hope for a solution that saves species and farms.

Learning from past mistakes

The wet and dry cycles might not be the only historical guide to exit today’s water problems. Twenty-five years ago southern Deschutes County was facing a groundwater crisis due to contamination caused by failing septic systems. The nitrates in these systems were leaching out of the steel containers, getting into wells used by residents for their drinking water.Like drought in northern areas of Deschutes, the nitrate problem in the southern part of the county is a slow-moving but persistent problem. Even if a septic system is modernized, it can take years for high nitrate loads in well water to fall to safe levels. A handful of neighborhoods continue to be impacted and there is genuine concern that nitrates may seep into the Deschutes River upstream of Sunriver.“In a decade or two, thousands of domestic wells in south county will be drawing water hazardous to human health out of the ground if nothing changes,” said Phil Chang, a Deschutes County commissioner.

But the problem is not without a solution; homeowners and officials have been working on a fix for years. State testing is free for residents to check the quality of their well and the city of La Pine has started hooking households up to its sewer system.

Steve Mathers, a La Pine-based well driller, says more can be done to clean up the local water supply.

“New nitrogen-reducing systems are helping a lot, all new houses have to have them,” said Mathers, a fourth-generation driller. “But it’s very expensive for older homeowners in the La Pine area, a lot of retired people are on Social Security and it would be a very expensive problem for them to fix.”

Mathers says low-interest loans could help some upgrade their systems or an option to pay off a loan when their house sells.

As Deschutes County navigates its current water challenges and reflects on its old ones, the idea that nature could self-correct remains a possibility, however intangible that may be at the moment. Consider that neighboring California is completely free of drought conditions after back-to-back strong winters. A similar return to wetter times could happen in Oregon.“My opinion is we will see wet cycles return to Central Oregon,” said Gorman, noting that in his own career, he watched a dry cycle in the early 1990s turn very wet by the middle of that decade.

“But that shouldn’t make folks complacent or relax on the need for additional improvements and efficiencies with those senior districts,” he adds.

“We should still be full speed ahead on conservation ... so when the next dry cycle comes, folks won’t be so shorted of water like they have this time.”

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