Drought-stricken Oregon farmers embark on pilot water bank program

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Providing water to the farmers in central Oregon who need it most takes time and investment, mostly in the form of new pipelines replacing leaky canals. But the irrigation districts are also offering innovative ways to share water around the Deschutes basin.

The most recent idea is a pilot water bank program that will provide cash payment to clients in the Central Oregon Irrigation District who “volunteer not to use irrigation water for. the 2022 irrigation season, ”according to the Deschutes River Conservancy, which facilitates the program. The unused water will be sent to the North Unit Irrigation District, a young water rights holder who experienced limited water resources during the current drought. Once in the hands of North Unit, water will be added to the district’s overall supply for the summer of 2022.

Phil Fine checks for carrot seeds in the soil left by a combine harvester while harvesting a field in the Northern Unit Irrigation District on Tuesday, August 31, 2021, near Madras, in the Oregon.

Nathan Howard / AP

Kate Fitzpatrick, executive director of conservation, said the program would be evaluated after one year and possibly extended, based on the interest of clients in the irrigation district. She said the program is temporary and COID clients will retain their right to water and be able to use the water in 2023.

“The goal of the program is to help relieve drought in the Northern Unit Irrigation District, as well as restore flows to the Upper Deschutes River,” said Fitzpatrick.

The program is potentially lucrative for landowners who don’t want to use their water rights – it’s free money for clients who may not want to water their property or have no crops or livestock to water. .

The program is also an option to consider for COID clients who simply want to help farmers in the North Unit who depend on water for their livelihoods, Fitzpatrick said.

Each COID landowner can receive $ 100 per acre they don’t water, paid by North Unit. North Unit will also have to pay COID $ 25 per acre to administer the program, so the total cost to North Unit is $ 125 per acre.

Water transfer cannot come soon enough for farmers in the northern unit, who have endured three consecutive years of drought and regularly fallow around half of their properties due to water scarcity.

A farmer in the northern unit that is downsizing is dairy farmer Jos Poland, which sells milk to regional dairy farmers, including Ebarhard’s Dairy Products and Darigold. Poland says it is selling cows now because it cannot grow enough grass to feed them due to water scarcity. Buying hay has also become too expensive, he said.

“I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing. Ask me in five years if I’m doing the right thing, ”Poland said. “Other breeders are also cutting their herds. They just can’t afford to buy food to get through the winter.

Fitzpatrick said it was not yet known how many acres would be transferred. This figure will be clearer at the start of the irrigation season, which begins on April 1. Mid-February is the target deadline for program registration.

Mike Britton, executive director of the North Unit, said marketing and water transfers have not been used much in the Deschutes Basin, but he is eager to see how the program will work.

“We hope we have enough water to make a difference and validate the marketing and transfer process,” Britton said in an email.

The project will also help the Deschutes River ecosystem, as the northern unit will have to release 25% of the water it receives by the project the following winter, thus helping to increase flows during the months when the river is flowing. at its lowest level.

“It’s really necessary for the river, really necessary for the fish, really necessary for the Oregon spotted frog,” Fitzpatrick said. “And the irrigation districts have agreed to increase these flows as part of the habitat conservation plan and they need tools to help them do that.”

The conservation plan requires irrigation districts to increase the flow of the Deschutes River over the next several years. By 2028, districts should have raised the Deschutes winter level to 300 cubic feet per second. The current level is around 105 cfs.

Fitzpatrick adds that there is no mechanism for individual farmers in the North Unit to pay for additional water. All the extra water will go into the canal for use by the whole neighborhood.

“It’s meant to raise all boats, and that way the farmers aren’t competing with each other for water, but they’re all getting benefits from it,” Fitzpatrick said.

North Unit farmer Cate Casad sees the project as a win-win solution for water users across the region, with some paid for water they don’t use and others paid for water they don’t use. water they desperately need.

“For all those who do not practice farming or herding professionally, they should understand that they can be paid to rent their water, ease their land management burden and also keep the farmers and herders in the center. of Oregon afloat in an emergency drought, ”Casad said.

Because the project is new, Fitzpatrick said any level of participation in the program will be considered a success and a basis for continuing the project. But targets have been set – the conservation said it hopes the water for 1,200 COID acres will be “sold” on a temporary basis to North Unit.

This would translate to an additional 5,200 acre-feet of water available, approximately 12 additional cfs, for the North unit this summer for irrigation and an additional 1,300 acres (4-5 cfs) restored to the stream in the upper part of Deschutes the following winter.

Not all clients will be eligible to participate in the pilot, Fitzpatrick said. Customers in their fourth or fifth year of non-use of their water will need to work with their irrigation district to lease their in-stream water through the state to maintain their water rights.

Selling their water to the North Unit is not a way around the Beneficial Use Regulation, which requires water rights holders to use their water at least every fifth year.

A water bank is not a new concept in central Oregon. The region had one for about three years in the late 2000s, when municipalities were allowed to withdraw water that was not needed for agriculture. The water was replenished and in return, the cities received mitigation credits which enabled them to pump more water.

Tod Heisler, director of the river conservation program at Central Oregon LandWatch, said the water bank was a good thing for central Oregon.

“It worked quite well because the major water seekers and suppliers sat around a table and figured out how to share the water to meet the needs of the city’s groundwater development and flow restoration. “Heisler said. “The reason it stopped is because the COID board just decided it didn’t want to be in this company anymore. “

Now, more than a decade later, another attempt is underway to share water.

But Fitzpatrick says in addition to the water bank program, 2022 will also be marked by advances in farm improvement projects near Smith Rock, including plans to dig private ditches. Approximately $ 5 million is available to be deployed for efficiency upgrades.

“The goal is to create a pressurized on-demand system that is as efficient as possible,” said Fitzpatrick. “It means that all of these different economic programs are working together. “


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