Terrebonne farmer has water while Madras farmer has none

September 22, 2021
Terrebonne farmer has water while Madras farmer has none

Phil Fine stood in a parched field and watched a harvester gnaw through his carrot seed crop, spitting clouds of dust in its wake.

Across an invisible line separating Fine’s irrigation district from the next, it’s another world. Automated sprinklers hissed as they doused crops; cattle munched on green grass and water bubbled through verdant farmland.

In this swath of Central Oregon, where six irrigation districts rely on the Deschutes River, the consequences of the strict hierarchy dictated by the American West’s arcane water law — “first in time, first in right” — are written on the land. As drought ravages the West, the districts with century-old water claims are first in line for the scarce resource while others nearby with more recent claims have already run out.

“It’s like the Wizard of Oz. ... It’s shocking the difference,” said Matt Lisignoli, a farmer who got nearly five times more water on his land in one irrigation district than on fields in another.

“I’ve learned more about water in the last two months than I have in the last 20 years, because it’s always been here,” he said. “You don’t know until you get in a bind.”

The stark contrast between the haves and have-nots has brought new urgency to efforts to share water. Proposals to create “water banks” or “water markets” would allow farmers with excess supply to lease it to those in need. The idea is part of a discussion about letting the free market play a bigger role in water conservation as human-caused climate change fuels drought and farmers run out of options.

Yet the concept is fraught with risks and resistance. Larger-scale efforts to spread water more equitably have been uneven. Along the Deschutes River, where every drop is accounted for, many farmers worry that if they lease their water rights, even temporarily, they may not get them back.

“Whether it’s feasible or not is a very local question,” said Brett Bovee of WestWater Research, a consulting firm for water market research.

Many Western water markets compensate farmers for diverting water to wildlife and cities instead of fields. Far fewer avenues get water to farmers, and the biggest challenge is moving it between irrigation districts, said Scott Revell, manager of the Roza Irrigation District in Washington state’s Yakima Valley.

The districts oversee water deliveries to customers and often operate as fiefdoms, each with water claims and history. Outdated infrastructure and bureaucracy — often compounded by rigid state laws — make water transfers difficult even between cooperating districts.

In Central Oregon, for example, Lisignoli wanted to take irrigation from his farmland in a district with senior water rights and transfer it to parched crops he grows in a neighboring district with lesser rights.

Lisignoli’s application had to be approved by both districts and Oregon’s water agency, which required an 11-day public notice period, he said.

Desperate, he purchased emergency water from a vineyard for $2,700, but water in that district ran out last month. He hasn’t watered 16 acres of pumpkins in weeks and hopes they will survive for Halloween sales.

“It was a futile effort,” he said. “But I’m hoping that it shows the flaws in the system.”

California, meanwhile, has one of the most flexible water markets in the West, allowing irrigation districts to move water where it’s most needed. After a major drought in the 1970s, lawmakers made transfers easier and emphasized that leasing water wouldn’t jeopardize rights, said Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.

Once a farmer has a transfer approved, renewing it is expedited and in many cases, water can follow demand without a lengthy environmental review, she said.

In Central Oregon, water-sharing is a charged topic.

The 960 farmers in the North Unit Irrigation District, which has the area’s lowest-ranking water rights, grow 60% of the world’s carrot seed, bound for carrot farmers or seed packets.

Districts with senior rights, meanwhile, tend toward hobby farms with llamas and alpacas, cattle pastures and hay fields. Those farmers have had to cut back for the first time but are still receiving 55% of their water.

The water disparity is compounded by efforts to preserve the federally protected Oregon spotted frog. A habitat conservation plan requires the North Unit district to release water for the frog from its storage reservoir over three decades.

That reservoir, which is filled by the Deschutes River, is almost empty, with once-submerged tree stumps jutting from cracked mudflats.

Other irrigation districts also gave up water for the frog, but “North Unit definitely got the short end of the stick,” General Manager Josh Bailey said. “It made our situation being the junior water rights holder ... even worse.”

The nonprofit Deschutes River Conservancy and the Central Oregon Irrigation District, which has senior water rights, are studying a water bank. It would provide financial incentives for farmers with extra water to lease it to needy irrigation districts or return it to the river to bolster its flows.

The coalition could launch a pilot project next year. A recent study says about 164,000 acre-feet of water may be freed up by using price incentives, said Kate Fitzpatrick, conservancy executive director. An acre-foot of water is enough to cover a football field a foot deep.

Everyone wants to avoid a crisis like in the Klamath River basin, a region on the Oregon-California border locked in a decadeslong fight over water where household wells are running dry.

“We’re trying to figure out ways for water to move around more flexibly,” Fitzpatrick said. “If we can find those win-win solutions, I believe that the Deschutes can be a model for the West as the West faces increasing drought and scarcity and population growth.”

Some water customers are eager to try it; others are wary.

Oregon law requires water rights holders to use their share every five years or lose it. Some worry that without safeguards, investors could snatch up those rights or they could lose them if they join a water bank.

The state loosened some rules this summer amid a drought emergency, but many say more reforms are necessary to make sharing easier and expand the ways to maintain water rights.

An informal call this summer about helping those with less water, for example, fizzled when only a handful of senior water rights holders stepped forward, said Shon Rae, Central Oregon Irrigation District’s deputy managing director.

“Bottom line, the paperwork and cost and time it took to do it just wasn’t going to work,” she said. “People would be interested in doing it if it were easier. Rules and laws are one of the biggest barriers.”

Those championing water markets acknowledge the idea can’t be the only answer, and more incentives are needed to reduce water use and upgrade aging infrastructure.

Along the Deschutes River, plans include replacing irrigation canals with pipes to reduce leaks and pumping water from a massive lake to struggling farmers — both long-term projects.

“What we’re trying to do is put in these big projects and be drought resilient. But the water marketing and leasing is ... something we can do now,” said Fine, the carrot seed farmer. “And if we don’t do something soon, we can’t keep going on like this. People will go broke.”


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An aerial view of a body of water.