Whenever I am driving around Central Oregon in summer, I see the Deschutes River being sprayed in the air by thousands of sprinklers used by farmers and ranchers primarily to grow forage for livestock like irrigated pasture, alfalfa, and hay.

 

Because of these water withdrawals for irrigation, the aquatic ecosystem of the Deschutes River suffer.

 

The fundamental question is: are we misallocating the public’s water?

 

Removal of water from the Deschutes River is not without well-documented negative impacts to fish and wildlife.

 

The over allocation of the Deschutes water for irrigation has impoverished trout populations and many other aquatic ecosystem-dependent wildlife, including those that feed upon these species like osprey, eagles, and otters.

 

Unfortunately, irrigators do not pay for rectifying any of this damage to our collective heritage, nor do they pay any compensation to other businesses that may depend on a healthy aquatic ecosystem, like fishing guides, and resort businesses.

 

Instead, we, taxpayers, are paying for the recovery of imperiled species or correcting other consequences resulting from the use of our water for private profit.

 

It’s important to note that water in Oregon rivers and streams is not owned by irrigators, but is held in trust by the State of Oregon and its citizens.

 

Irrigators pay for is the transportation of water to irrigation districts who control the canals, and other delivery mechanisms, but don’t pay a dime for the water they take from our public rivers.

But, we the people of Oregon who “own” the water, get nothing—zero—zip—nada. This would be analogous to loggers cutting down trees on our national forests without paying a penny for the wood.

 

Of course, even if they did pay something for OUR water, it would not compensate for all the ecological damage done by water removal.

 

Yet for years there has been unquestioned assumption that ranchers/farmers have water “rights” which they promote as a “right” to take your water.

 

However, a water right only determines who gets to take public water and the amount—if the public decides it wants to permit irrigators to use the water–not whether they have a property right to the water.

 

The Public Trust Doctrine says that water, like air, is a commonly owned commodity that governments have an obligation to protect for the common good of all citizens. Courts have ruled that removal of water from streams is a “privilege” that can be canceled or reduced.

 

We own the water. The state has a Public Trust obligation to put the welfare of our natural aquatic ecosystems on an equal footing with other stream use.

 

The Deschutes River should be managed for the public interest, not private for profit interests.

 

Irrigated agriculture should be secondary to maintaining the public’s interest in maintaining healthy aquatic ecosystems.

 

If there is water available above flows to sustain healthy river ecosystem, then, and only then, should irrigators get to take water out of our rivers and streams.

 

 
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About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

6 Responses to Deschutes River should be managed for public interest

  1. avatar Ed Loosli says:

    Thank you George, once again!!

    If you took your words and broadened them to encompass all Oregon rivers, re-worked them and put the results in a State Referendum to be voted on by the public, I think it would pass.

    The people of Oregon own the water in Oregon’s rivers as a public trust. All rivers in Oregon should be managed for the public interest, above private for profit interests.

    Irrigated agriculture should be secondary to maintaining the public’s interest in maintaining healthy aquatic ecosystems.

    If there is water available above flows to sustain healthy river ecosystems, then, and only then, should irrigators get to take water out of our rivers and streams.

  2. avatar Patrick says:

    Agreed, but that would require relying on scientists to determine what a “healthy river” looks like. In our current anti-science climate, it is unlikely those findings would be met without a considerable fight…just like the climate change deniers.

  3. avatar Gary Humbard says:

    All perennial rivers and streams that flow within land managed by federal agencies (BLM and FS) in western Oregon are protected on each side with fairly large no-cut or disturbance buffers. Even intermittent streams are protected, but the problem is once they enter private land, minimal to no protection is provided by the Oregon Forest Practices Act.

    Federal agencies do use science in evaluating whether streams are “functioning properly” and if not, they do their best with the budget they have to incorporate activities such as adding down logs, installing boulders, decommissioning roads that are problematic and are no longer needed for use and replacing worn out or undersized culverts.

    I live in central Oregon where the Deschutes River is located and although I’m not an expert on farming in this area, I can say with confidence that the soils are extremely nutrient deficient (volcanic) and the growing season is not conducive for growing fruits and vegetables. Growing hay and alfalfa are really the only crops that grows here for a reason. Travel west over the Cascades and you have one of the most fertile and mild climate valleys in the west (Willamette Valley) and north to the Hood River Valley.

    Just like you cannot force love, folks have a hard time growing veggies and fruits in central Oregon so they go to farmers fruit stands where the bounty was brought in from fertile and mild areas.

    • avatar Ed Loosli says:

      Gary,
      Thanks for your local information and input. My thoughts are; just because the only crops a land owner can grow are “hay and alfalfa” doesn’t mean that “hay and alfalfa” should be irrigated with the public’s water and grown at the expense of taking the water necessary for the lives of the public’s fish and wildlife. Private land owners should not have the right to preempt the public’s right to healthy flowing rivers.
      Ed Loosli – Portland, Oregon

  4. Hi there, I wholeheartedly agree. Private land owners should not have the right to preempt the public’s right to healthy and flowing rivers. The group I work with is trying to change the laws surrounding this. Please let us know if you’d like to be a part of that work.

  5. avatar Craig B Lacy says:

    Not only is the water given away for free, it is rarely measured or metered. Net result is no inducement to conserve. That leaves us in a situation where up to 2/3 of the water diverted never gets to the crops. As George pointed out these are not high value crops. Some ranchers just operate for the tax benefits.
    Craig- Bend

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