Guest column: Getting to a drought resilient future

August 27, 2021
Guest column: Getting to a drought resilient future

August and September may be the cruelest months of the 2021 drought. Arnold Irrigation District shut off water to its patrons on July 31. North Unit Irrigation District recently ran out of stored water in Wickiup Reservoir. Farmers wonder whether carefully tended crops will make it to harvest before they dry up. Ranchers wonder whether they will find hay to sustain livestock through the fall and winter. Acres fallowed earlier this year to stretch water supplies are losing topsoil to Dust Bowl-type winds.

Perfect Balance, a farm group concerned about agricultural water supplies in Central Oregon, organized a panel of water law experts last week to discuss how the Endangered Species Act and the Habitat Conservation Plan for the Upper Deschutes Basin are impacting water supplies for farmers this year.

Many presenters and attendees expressed concern that allocating water for fish and wildlife habitat in the Upper Deschutes Basin was cutting off needed water supplies for farmers.

The Habitat Conservation Plan, which is designed to improve habitat for the Oregon spotted frog, steelhead and bull trout, is causing changes in the allocation and storage of water in the basin. But the Aug. 17 forum may have focused too heavily on endangered species protection as the reason farmers are facing water challenges this year.

During his comments, Arnold Irrigation District board member Rob Rastovich reminded the audience that one of the realities of the Upper Deschutes Basin is that some farmers and irrigation districts hold senior water rights — and a lot of them — and some farmers and irrigation districts hold junior water rights.

Frog or no frog, when water supplies are limited, junior water rights holders are the first to have supplies cut off.

In a severe drought year like this when reservoirs didn’t fill and live flow in streams and rivers is meager, farmers with junior water rights will not get their full rights.

Even though junior water rights holders install the most water efficient irrigation systems they are still vulnerable. Meanwhile, senior water rights holders do not need to implement water saving measures to have certainty that they will get substantial allocations. In the Upper Deschutes Basin, some senior rights holders hold three times the rights that junior rights holders do.

While drought-parched farmers can direct some of their frustration at the Endangered Species Act, they should worry more about the 19th- century state water laws that maintain this allocation of water — an allocation which does not necessarily make sense when we think of our water use priorities in the 21st century: food production and farm viability, fish and wildlife habitat in rivers, water-based recreation, and growing cities.

An army of attorneys will make sure that Oregon’s antiquated water law framework stays largely intact. But we can tinker around the edges of the system, and we can deploy policy and funding to improve the efficiency of agriculture — particularly in the irrigation districts with large amounts of senior water rights — so that we can share the conserved water with the farmers with junior water rights and with the fish and wildlife that depend on the river.

Important work to conserve and share water in the Upper Deschutes Basin is already in motion, with millions of dollars worth of canal piping and on-farm efficiency projects being implemented each year. The Habitat Conservation Plan is actually a key driver of much of this work.

Unfortunately, we haven’t completed enough of this conservation and sharing work yet to mitigate the brutal drought of 2021. The federal and state governments should step in with drought disaster relief to help farmers make it to the more drought-resilient years to come.


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An aerial view of a body of water.