Jefferson County growers fear the loss of irrigation water
The farm fields in Jefferson County are quiet this time of year, the irrigation ditches dry, the crops dormant and the tractors, combines and balers parked in barns until spring.
Even so, farmers are busy calculating their costs for the spring planting season, and this year they’re factoring in a little bit of fear.
Twin lawsuits filed in December in U.S. District Court in Eugene by environmental groups, if successful, would force the federal government to ensure that Oregon spotted frogs, a threatened species, have enough water to survive in the Upper Deschutes River Basin. The lawsuits cite the Endangered Species Act as the basis for their claims.
Farmers like Kevin Richards and Mike Kirsch fear the lawsuits could reduce their supply of irrigation water, which comes from the Deschutes River.
They said the lawsuits introduce as much uncertainty into Jefferson County agriculture as nature or commodity markets.
Farmers in the North Unit Irrigation District, where some of Oregon’s most valuable seed crops are grown, generally hold junior water rights in the Deschutes River basin.
“That’s the fear, that we would basically not have our allotment; we would lose our water,” Richards said. “And it could happen as soon as this season.”
The lawsuits were only recently filed; the environmental groups agreed to extend the deadlines for responses from officials of the irrigation districts and the Bureau of Reclamation for 60 days. The suit asks the court to order the Bureau of Reclamation to operate its reservoirs on the Upper Deschutes River, where irrigation water is stored, to create a more natural stream flow. Farmers fear that whatever action the court may take will interrupt their water deliveries.
Representatives for the plaintiffs, WaterWatch of Oregon and the Center for Biological Diversity, said their lawsuits were born out of frustration with efforts to protect the spotted frog.
“At a point in time, as conditions continue to deteriorate, to continue to do what is not working is not smart,” said Janette Brimmer, an attorney for WaterWatch. The organization “has no intention of displacing anyone. But there’s going to have to be some changes in the way folks operate.”
The threat of legal action hung over Central Oregon farmers even before December. In August 2014, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed the Oregon spotted frog as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
In the interim, a ripple worked its way through Jefferson County, farmers and others said. Sales of farm machinery, for example, were down in the past six months at Ag West Supply, a Madras equipment dealer, by more than $1 million over prior years.
“They’ve actually been down since the middle of last year,” said Reed Grote, Ag West manager. “It’s 100 percent attributable to the unknown in our water situation.”
At Central Oregon Seeds Inc., which contracts with farmers to buy the seed crops that Jefferson County is known for, the lawsuits introduce an element of business risk felt on a global scale. The county ranks No. 24 out of 583 U.S. counties that produce field and grass seed crops, according to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture. Its isolated location makes Jefferson County a good site for growing carrots and grass for seed and other niche crops like peppermint.
“I think that what (the lawsuits do) for us is it can put doubt in the minds of our customers worldwide as to whether our water source is reliable. They take the risk through us and the grower, who plants a field they may not have water for,” said Mike Weber, managing partner at Central Oregon Seeds. “We’re all taking the risk, and the outcome could be disastrous.”
Farmers and environmentalists agree the lawsuits emerged out of efforts to manage the Deschutes River water in the face of climate change and the poor habitat for the spotted frog. The WaterWatch lawsuit names the Central Oregon, Tumalo and North Unit irrigation districts along with the Bureau of Reclamation, which maintains the Wickiup and Crane Prairie reservoirs on the Upper Deschutes River.
During the winter, the bureau stores water for the North Unit primarily in the Wickiup Reservoir, which has a capacity of 200,000 acre-feet. Consequently, the Deschutes River has low winter flows followed by summer flows sometimes 50 to 70 times higher, the Center for Biological Diversity says.
During the irrigation season, which lasts from April to October, water is released from the reservoirs into the Deschutes River, then diverted at Bend into the North Unit system to be delivered via the main canal to farms in Jefferson County.
“The reservoir may not fill to 100 percent, but we can look out and say the snowpack’s looking pretty good; I think there’s a pretty good probability that I’m going to get my full allotment this year,” said Richards, who partners with his father, Martin Richards, on Fox Hollow Ranch. “But with a lawsuit, it’s anybody’s guess. We could lose something really substantial or it could be something nominal.
“Who knows? And that’s an environment where it’s really impossible to make business decisions.”
Richards and his wife, Natalie, gave up well-paying professional careers in Washington, D.C., to return to Kevin’s childhood home south of Madras and take up the family business.
Kevin Richards graduated from Oregon State University with an economics degree, then earned a graduate degree in economics and public policy at Georgetown University. He later worked with an international consulting firm on projects in Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Vietnam and the Philippines. He also worked as director of regulatory affairs for the American Farm Bureau. His father, Martin, is a member of the North Unit board of directors.
At the Richards’ Fox Hollow Ranch, a little more than 600 acres, rows of Kentucky bluegrass and cover crops of mustard and a wheat-and-barley mix grow this time of year.
The bluegrass, a perennial crop, matures later in the year, but the mustard, wheat and barley are plowed under and replaced with seed crops: hybrid carrot and bluegrass, or wheat and alfalfa. Crops grown in Jefferson County wind up in markets around the world, whether as forage in Asia or the Middle East or as seeds planted on farms in central Washington.
Water does not come free, or particularly cheap for North Unit farmers, Kevin Richards said. The Fox Hollow Ranch bill for the coming season — farmers pay up front — totaled $40,000, before a drop even flowed, he said.
“I’m one farmer, not a biologist,” he said Tuesday. “In my opinion, yeah, there’s enough water in the (Deschutes River) basin to certainly preserve the ecology and preserve habitat without harming communities and farmers.”
Richards and Kirsch, whose family owns Madras Farms Co., a 1,600-acre operation based on the North Agency Plains north of Madras, said the lawsuits surprised them because WaterWatch of Oregon took part in the Basin Study Work Group, funded by the Bureau of Reclamation. The work group, composed of more than 30 members, has worked on the big-picture, climate-change study of the Deschutes River Basin expected to be complete in 2017.
“It was very collaborative, and a lot of promising progress had been made, both in substantive water conversations but also in bringing the right people together in a common, workable solution,” Richards said. “The plaintiffs (WaterWatch) in this suit were a part of that process and, kind of at the 11th hour, walked away and filed the suit.”
Brimmer, the WaterWatch attorney, said the collaborative group talked about solutions but didn’t act fast enough to restore the spotted frog habitat. A Habitat Conservation Plan, a parallel effort by the city of Prineville and Central Oregon irrigation districts, aims to restore spotted frog habitat before federal agencies impose mandates. It’s still in the works, but a version circulated among federal agencies for comment in 2014, she said. It received critical comments and likewise doesn’t do enough to restore river habitat for the frog and other species, she said.
“They didn’t really propose to do anything for the Upper (Deschutes) River,” Brimmer said. “At that point it became clear something had to be done.”
However, she said, the North Unit Irrigation District stands out for its progressive irrigation practices and its farmers’ ability to squeeze value out of every drop of water they receive. Tours of Fox Hollow Ranch and Madras Farm Co. showed a range of efficiencies, including drip irrigation, crop rotation and the capture and recycling of irrigation water. Mike Kirsch is also a member of the North Unit board of directors.
“North Unit has been doing some good things,” Brimmer said. “If we were seeing that kind of movement from others, we might be in a different place.”
She said her client’s intent is not to curtail water to Central Oregon farms, but to change the river flows in order to save the spotted frog. That may mean uncertainty for farmers until the lawsuits are resolved, including a court order that at some point affects farmers’ water rights.
Farmers are justified in their uncertainty, Brimmer said, adding that without something being done to address stream flows and wildlife habitat, the Deschutes River faces a certain, unhealthy future as little more than an irrigation ditch.
“I think there’s going to be changes at some level,” she said, “I don’t have a crystal ball as to how much change.”