Guest column: $1 billion is too much to give irrigation districts in these times

Apr 15, 2020

Bend Bulletin

Guest column: $1 billion is too much to give irrigation districts in these times

By Tod Heisler 

A recent guest column author argued that the solution for water shortages in the Deschutes River Basin is large canal piping projects for irrigation districts funded by the public, instead of much cheaper water market solutions. What he completely ignores is the cost of the large pipes, around $1 billion. In this economic crisis that is absurd, a pipe dream. It will cost too much and take too long. Climate change, threatened fish and wildlife, degraded rivers and farmers without water security compel us to act quickly to solve this problem.

Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID) is currently a major focus of large canal piping due to its size and the magnitude of its inefficiency. Everyone agrees that conservation measures in COID are critical, but what is missing from the irrigation districts’ large pipe argument is cost. COID has over 400 miles of canals and estimates to pipe these canals and those of the other districts around Bend are around $1 billion. The project COID is currently proposing pipes only eight miles of its canals at a taxpayer cost of $42 million. You do the math. We do not have the time nor money to fix the problem predominantly this way. It is time to look seriously at the reality of our current land use and water use and to devise approaches that are appropriate, affordable and can be expedited.

Land use within COID has changed dramatically over the past 40 years. Today, around half of COID’s 3,800 patrons irrigate three acres or less. Does it really make sense to spend hundreds of millions of public dollars to pipe canals and pressurize water for small lifestyle farms? No, it doesn’t. We have a water distribution problem — too much water available to properties that engage little in farming and not enough water to our large agricultural producers and to the Deschutes River. The best way to solve this distribution problem voluntarily is through water marketing.

So, what is water marketing? In simple terms, it is providing financial incentives to landowners to use less water. The water savings can then be used to restore stream flows or can firm up a farmer’s supply. These market tools could entail leasing a landowner’s water for a season or purchasing it permanently. They could mean providing money to incentivize the upgrade of an irrigation system or to simply use less water in a particular season. The proponents of large canal piping continue to stress that irrigation districts cannot force water users to change the way they use water. Water marketing is not compulsory, it is completely voluntary. It is a tried and true method backed by thirty years of studies and practice.

The Deschutes Basin Study, completed last year with funding from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Oregon Water Resources Department, indicated that “the total opportunity for market-based incentives is estimated to be up to 160,000 acre-feet annually (equal to 80% of the volume of Wickiup Reservoir) at an estimated average potential cost on the order of $400 per acre-foot. ”These financial incentives have the potential to achieve redistribution of the region’s water at less than one tenth the cost of large canal piping.

Fragmentation of our rural lands into small parcels may not be great for other reasons, but it has created a big opportunity for water markets to work in Central Oregon. It doesn’t make economic sense to spend $1 billion to pipe the water to these lifestyle farms, but there is an excellent economic rationale to offer them financial incentives to alter their water use. In so doing, they will help redistribute water in our basin voluntarily and cost-effectively to the benefit of the Deschutes River and efficient agricultural producers.

Tod Heisler is the director of the Rivers Conservation Program at Central Oregon LandWatch.

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