Irrigation Districts and the Deschutes River

"My Way or the Highway" is not collaboration

A guest column by our Rivers Conservation Director, Tod Heisler

It is easy to label alternative points of view as uncooperative, when in fact they so often lead to major advances in our society. But when it comes to water management in Central Oregon, unless you subscribe to the points of view of irrigation managers and boards, you are accused of holding grudges or picking fights. Dissenting views are critical to genuine, effective collaborative work. To that end, I spent fifteen years as executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy where irrigation, tribal, environmental and government agency perspectives were all represented.

During my tenure, Deschutes basin stakeholders came together to execute creative projects that restored the river while also helping irrigators. In addition, we conducted three major studies in partnership with the Bureau of Reclamation, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Oregon Water Resources Department, irrigation districts, environmental organizations and others. What did all the collaborative work and studies tell us?

• The 21st century water needs of rivers, communities and farms can only be met if the water rights appropriated in the 19th and early 20th centuries are shared in innovative ways

• The water to be shared can be generated through the adoption of water conservation measures (which include piping canals and upgrading irrigation equipment) and through market approaches (which include voluntary water leasing and water sales). 

• The leaky canals (seepage losses of 40%) and irrigation district urbanization (farm fragmentation) offer significant opportunities to both conserve water and to reallocate water through the buying, selling and leasing of water. 

• The fastest and cheapest way to meet our future water needs entails integration of both the conservation and market approaches.

Despite the study findings, the irrigation districts have presented drafts of a Deschutes Habitat Conservation Plan that rely exclusively on canal piping as the way to mitigate their impacts on species — mid-Columbia steelhead, bull trout, sockeye and chinook salmon and the Oregon spotted frogs. These districts who control virtually all of the water rights in our region feel as though they can dictate their terms in a “my way or the highway” approach — not exactly collaboration in my book. I advocate for an alternative approach — a balanced, integrated and cheaper approach that does not rely solely on a big infusion of public money for large canal piping. 

Mr. Gary Harris in his June 19 Bend Bulletin column, “What it means to be a junior water right holder,” put his finger squarely on the problem. “When watered cropland becomes urbanized those water rights should go to the junior water right holders as the law was intended.” But instead of allowing unneeded water to flow to the junior water right holders, senior water right holders work hard to use every drop, depriving the juniors of urgently needed water. 

The only way that family farms near Culver and Madras can get the water they need at a reasonable cost and time frame is if landowners around Bend and Redmond with senior rights conserve and take only the water that they truly need. Studies have informed us that these landowners will respond positively to incentives to use less water — water that can be shared with North Unit farmers and help satisfy the needs of fish and wildlife in the Upper Deschutes.

Unfortunately, the opposite is happening this summer. Rather than adopt a more conservative and judicious use of water, senior water right holders are encouraged to use all of their water on every acre. By Aug. 1, this practice had nearly drained Wickiup Reservoir with two to three months still remaining in the irrigation season.

The time has come to put real collaborative and effective water conservation approaches to work. Otherwise, threatened fish and wildlife in the Deschutes basin will be blamed for our water woes when the solution to the problem has been in the hands of the irrigators all along.