Central Oregon’s water-sharing program extended after rocky start

A highly anticipated program designed to alleviate water shortages for central Oregon farmers will continue for a second year.

The Deschutes River Conservancy, Central Oregon Irrigation District and Northern Unit Irrigation District announced last week that they will extend their water bank pilot project, despite the challenges they faced in the program’s inaugural year.

Phil Fine watches a combine harvest carrot seeds in the North Unit Irrigation District Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, near Madras, Oregon. The stark contrast between water haves and have-nots two hours southeast of Portland has brought new urgency to efforts to share the resource.

Nathan Howard/AP

Organizers say the water bank could eventually include other irrigation districts in the Deschutes Basin. If successful, the program could become a model for other parts of the state struggling with water shortages.

“The water law is really rigid out west, and it’s really hard to move water even though it makes a lot of sense,” said Kate Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy.

“So in the absence of large-scale water law reversal and reform, these voluntary banks can help ease some of the pain and provide short-term solutions.”

Water bank offers cash payments to major water rights holders in central Oregon’s irrigation district to forgo their annual water allocation and let their lands dry up . By doing so, they leave more water in the system for junior rights holders in the north unit to use downstream.

Phil Fine checks for carrot seeds in the soil left behind by a combine while harvesting a North Unit Irrigation District field Tuesday August 31, 2021, near Madras, Ore.

Phil Fine checks for carrot seeds in the soil left behind by a combine while harvesting a North Unit Irrigation District field Tuesday August 31, 2021, near Madras, Ore.

Nathan Howard/AP

Oregon law allocates water to senior water rights holders first, so junior water rights holders are more likely to run out of what they need to grow crops during drought years. low water.

Fitzpatrick said the water bank incentivizes senior rights holders to use less, which helps junior rights holders in Jefferson County’s large agricultural sector and benefits the Deschutes River by keeping more water in. the stream for a longer period.

“Ultimately, we try to reduce demands on a voluntary basis so that we can meet other needs in the basin,” she said.

The beleaguered farmers have only received a little extra water from the bank this summer. Despite some interest from people wanting to benefit from water they had no intention of using, leaking infrastructure and other water supply issues limited participants.

About 150 members of the Central Oregon Irrigation District expressed interest in donating their water to North Unit irrigators this year, but only 17 were accepted. These users set aside approximately 90 acres of water, which was far less than the 1,200 originally planned.

North Unit executive director Mike Britton said even the relatively small amount of water retained this year was a success, as it helped prove the concept could work.

“Our guys have been reduced to about 25% of their normal allowance this year,” Britton said. “Any extra water is good water. Whether it’s 50 acres or 500 acres that make their water available to North Unit, we’ll take it.

Organizers say the first year underscored the need for major investment in the hundreds of miles of canals, ditches and other infrastructure that carry water through central Oregon. Repairs and improvements over time will allow the water bank to grow and move water more easily throughout the region, they said.

Their goal now is to recruit more volunteers to put water in the bank next year to gauge interest in the program.

Central Oregon Irrigation District Manager Craig Horrell said in a press release that his district is thrilled to offer members the opportunity to loan their water for another year.

“It complements our water conservation work and is another tool we can use in our efforts to find basin-wide solutions to water issues,” Horrell said.

Water users can see if they are eligible to participate in the water bank by submitting a form to the Deschutes River Conservancy by November 1.

Ryan H. Bowman