Editorial: Close the gap on water in the Deschutes Basin

Bend Bulletin Editorial Board, Published Sept. 9, 2019

Farmers near Madras and Culver have had to again this year let some of their land fallow because of lack of water, as The Bulletin reported on Saturday. But there are possible solutions in the works to better meet the gap between supply and demand for water in the Deschutes Basin.

It could be better for farmers, river flows and better for fish and wildlife. And there is real pressure to find solutions — not only to help farmers but because of the Deschutes River’s Oregon spotted frog. It is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The key is to act on the possibilities discovered in the Deschutes Basin Study. That study was a collaborative effort by federal agencies, the state, irrigation districts, conservation groups, the Deschutes River Conservancy and more to identify problems and solutions for water in the basin.

One possibility that the study identified is as much as 135,000 acre feet of water could be shared by farmers with senior water rights to help farmers with junior water rights, such as those served by North Unit Irrigation District near Madras and Culver. An acre foot of water is the amount of water to cover one acre with one foot of water. It is about 326,000 gallons. Through water sharing that 135,000 acre feet of water could be shifted to where it is arguably needed more. And the great news is Central Oregon Irrigation District, a senior rights holder, and North Unit are already looking at ways to do more.

Of course, if it was without complication, more sharing would already be happening. The basin’s irrigation system wasn’t specifically built to share water between districts or divert more water to the Deschutes River. It was built for irrigation district patrons to take what they get. For instance, COID’s system of canals and laterals were not initially built to “deliver on demand” — with a system of gates, meters and laterals that would make sharing water with North Unit easier. There is also seepage in unlined canals, which makes it harder to get water where it is intended.

Money is another factor. It costs money to retrofit. More water patrons would also be interested in sharing their water if there is a financial incentive. Where is that money going to come from? At least according an analysis prepared for the basin study, sharing projects will cost one-tenth per acre foot the cost of projects that are more singularly focused on piping or building more storage. That’s not all that simple, either. New piping projects may be required to facilitate any sharing and keep irrigation districts fully operational.

Later this month, many of the same groups that collaborated on the basin study are going to start meeting again to try to make some of possibilities identified in the study happen. It’s not an irrigation season too soon.

Shon RaeEditorial: Close the gap on water in the Deschutes Basin