Response to Oregon Farm Bureau on Deschutes River Irrigation Withdrawals

This editorial from Gary Burhue of the  Oregon Farm Bureau was written in response to an earlier editorial I had written questioning the impoverishment of the Deschutes River by Ag water withdrawals. This editorial and a previous editorial from Coalition for the Deschutes leaves out critical information in an effort to defend the misuse of OUR water for irrigation and to justify the huge investment of taxpayer dollars in their irrigation infrastructure. Below is the latest attempt to mislead the public. I will put my comments  in italics.

The issues I raise are similar throughout the West so give some idea of the kinds of questions one must ask about the withdrawal of water for irrigation and how to evaluate assertions about the economic value of Agriculture. Even in California where half of the nation’s food is grown, the vast majority of water taken from rivers is used for irrigated pasture and hay/alfalfa production.  Is this really the best use of scarce water?

In the April 10 guest column entitled, “Deschutes should not be damaged for personal profit,” George Wuerthner suggested that Central Oregon’s water woes would be solved if the state would only force farm and ranch families to stop using water for agriculture.

I did not say force Ag to stop using water as much as saying that the public and the river ecosystem should be given priority in any water allotment. Considering that AG takes 90% of the water, the current arrangement is clearly unfair.

“In other words, if the only withdrawals were for cities like Bend, the Deschutes would still be a functioning river,” he wrote.

That is correct because cities, industry and even all the golf courses are responsible for about 5-6% of the river’s water withdrawals. 

As a third-generation farmer, I took great umbrage at his column. It’s saddening that we farmers and ranchers, who today comprise less than 1 percent of the population, must defend ourselves against such misguided attacks.

That’s the point, Ag, especially the Ag in central Oregon which is focused on irrigated hay and pasture is unimportant for food production.

Agriculture is an excellent use of water. Agriculture also makes invaluable contributions to Central Oregon’s economy, landscape and quality of life.

Water rights are a critical part of farmers’ operations. In Oregon, the state considers water rights property rights. The Oregon Supreme Court has recognized the critical value of a water right and has held that after a water right is established, its holder has a property interest in that right. As such, if the state were to take a water right away, the holder would be entitled to compensation from the state.

That is misleading. Yes, a “water right” only provides title to water distribution, not the water itself.  It only applies to who is permitted to use the water, and the amount of water IF AND ONLY IF the public decides to allow the water to be removed.

The public owns the water, and we can determine if we want to waste it growing cow forage or we would rather keep it in our rivers.

The Oregon Supreme Court “maintains that Oregon’s public trust doctrine is grounded on public ownership of natural resources held in trust by the state in sovereign ownership.  The state is required to maintain these resources as trustee for the public.

This is a key issue. Water “rights” are mere “water privileges” just as grazing on public lands is not a right, but a privilege. We, the public, own the water just as we own the grass on public lands. 

The courts have ruled these rights “include but are not limited to recreation, conservation, maintenance and enhancement of aquatic and fish life, wildlife, fish and wildlife habitat and any other ecological values,” pollution abatement, and navigation.”

Contrary to Wuerthner’s assertion, irrigators pay for their water rights in a myriad of ways. Irrigated land is taxed at a higher value than nonirrigated land, such that the rights are taxed as part of a farm or ranch’s property value. As with municipal water, there are also significant infrastructure and pumping costs for farmers.

Again this is misleading. I said irrigators do not pay for our water. They do not anything for the water. Just because they pay higher taxes for irrigated land isn’t paying for the water. It’s paying for the added value of irrigated land. And of course, he glosses over the fact that agricultural land is taxed at very low levels to begin with compared to similar land zoned as residential. That is why so many rural residents have a few llamas or Xmas trees to maintain the low Ag tax status.

In terms of conservation and the demands on our state’s precious water supply, no one is more aware of these pressures than are irrigators in Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties.

And few are doing more to find solutions.

Between the growing population of cities like Bend, endangered species lawsuits and reduced rainfall, the water that’s used in agriculture is constantly discussed and scrutinized. Local farmers participate in public meetings on regional water use and planning, work closely with their irrigation districts and proactively reach out to environmental groups, tribes, community leaders and elected officials to explain why and how they use water.

These farmers have a great story to tell. They’re leading the state, even the nation, in terms of water conservation and efficiency, investing a lot of money in the most efficient, high-tech irrigation systems available, including drip irrigation, pressurized sprinklers and finely calibrated nozzles. Many are researching funding opportunities to do even more.

This is another misleading statement. This makes it sound like AG is doing a lot of things out of the goodness of their hearts because they really care about endangered spotted frogs or bull trout or salmon, and really want to help the environment. The truth is much closer to self-interest.  Ag is investing in more efficient irrigation–which not only increases their production so is a financial advantage- but most of the money being invested in irrigation efficiency comes from government programs-i.e. taxpayers– which enhances the value of the irrigation district and individual ranches.  Taxpayers are paying hundreds of millions of dollars and perhaps more than a billion dollars to improve irrigation in the Upper Deschutes Basin. These federal and state subsidies directly benefit the irrigators bottom line. We should not lose sight of that.

Farmers are dedicating their time, energy and money to do their part to find a way to meet the water needs of all, for agriculture, municipalities, recreation and wildlife. It’s a complex, ongoing challenge, and it demands a collaborative approach.

Of course, they want collaboration because that is how they screw everyone with the help and aid of groups like the Coalition for the Deschutes, TU, Freshwater Trust, Deschutes River Conservancy and other groups that more or less have become mouthpieces and advocates for the irrigators.

Some of these farmers raise hay, an important crop for this region. Hay is used as feed for many types of animals, is a major export market, and is Oregon’s No. 3 commodity by production value.

Hay is a low-value crop relative to other crops. But it is easy to grow, and can be grown where there are cool temps as in Central Oregon where frost can come at any season.  It is used to feed livestock, not people. To be using something as valuable as water in the desert to grow something of such low value is an incredible waste of our water.

Keeping water in the river has far more value to the regional economy that is now largely based on amenities and outdoor values.

But that’s not the only crop grown here.

Local farmers and ranchers also use water to raise cattle, sheep, horses, alpacas, nuts, fruits, vegetables, eggs, garlic, wheat, wine grapes, oil crops and seed for vegetables, grass, flowers and, most famously, hybrid carrots.

The above crops are insignificant in acreage and water use. If the only crops that were grown with irrigation were the above, very little water would be removed from the river. For instance, in Deschutes County, 44,000 acres are in irrigated pasture and hay production, but less than 239 acres is used to grow any other crops. More acres are used for food crop production near Madres but it’s still far less than what we use to grow hay.

A 2017 study, “Agriculture and Irrigation in Oregon’s Deschutes and Jefferson Counties” by Headwaters Economics, reports that Central Oregon agriculture contributes $274.5 million every year to the local economy.

Again another misleading use of statistics. The above figure is Ag from three counties combined (he left out Crooked County)  which of course makes the number bigger, and all Agriculture which is more than irrigated crops. I have no issue with using the river water for growing human food crops in Central Oregon  since this would barely put a dent in the Deschutes River’s flow. 

Furthermore, much of that money depends on Ag subsidies so indirectly is taxpayer money given to farmers through many Ag subsidies programs. 

Plus is the “total economic impact” which often uses questionable “multipliers” to inflate the value of Ag. For instance, in many Ag economic studies, they include people who serve food in restaurants or work in a grocery store as “Ag related workers” and include their incomes etc. in “total economic impact” of Ag. I do not know which multipliers are used in this figure, but Ag almost always exaggerates it economic impact so as to justify continued subsidies.

For instance in Deschutes County Ag only produced Deschutes County averaged $26.1 million!. That is a pittance in terms of the local economy. The labor and non-labor income for Deschutes County, not counting Ag and other natural resource jobs like logging, is over$7 billion. If all Ag disappeared from Deschutes County overnight, we would hardly notice it.

Ag contribution to Central Oregon is less than 1% of the local economy. Transfer payments which is the non-labor income contribute $3.3 billion to to Deschutes County economy alone. That is nearly equal to the total labor income of $3.7 billion. In other words, almost half of all income in Central Oregon is not the result of local jobs.  Why do all these people live here? That is easy to answer. Because of things like the beauty of the area, fishing and boating opportunities and just the scenic value of the rivers.  All of which would be enhanced greatly if the natural river flows in the Deschutes River were restored.

Think of the Metolius River. That beautiful cold clean steady flowing river is exactly what the Upper Deschutes once looked like.

Farmers and ranchers are also to thank for the much of the beautiful, undeveloped landscape enjoyed by all residents and visitors, along with critical habitat for wildlife.

If we were to add up all the subsidies Americans have bestowed on farmers and ranchers over the years, we have paid for these lands many times over with our tax dollars, and the tax dollars we must invest in correcting the environmental damage from these activities or live with the consequences of Ag’s impacts. I.e. the endangerment of our wildlife like spotted frogs and bull trout are a cost of irrigated ag that we all suffer or the decline in water quality in the Deschutes River which was one of the most steady and clear rivers in the nation. These are real costs.

No one is suggesting that there ­aren’t challenges around water use and planning. But to propose that agriculture isn’t worthy of water is wildly misguided and ill-informed.

The real issue is whether our rivers should be enslaved by irrigators and should be permitted to destroy river ecosystems for their private profit. This is especially important since most of the water taken from rivers around the West is used to provide forage crops for livestock. Livestsock forage crops and livestock itself to the degree we should be growing any at all, can be produced in places where it rains without having to destroy our western rivers.



  1. Patrick Veesart Avatar
    Patrick Veesart

    Ranchers/farmers have developed a set of talking points that always start with how long their families have ranched/farmed, move on to the enormous benefits of ranching/farming, and end with a statement about how rancher/farmers are good stewards of the land. As you point out, the benefits are greatly overstated while the impacts are greatly understated. Thank you for this excellent analysis.

  2. Jim Olson Avatar

    The right to use water in connection with land is important, but it is not absolute, and as a matter of common law for centuries subject to state sovereignty and limitations imposed by the public trust doctrine. The U.S. Supreme Court and nearly every state supreme court in this country recognizes this.

  3. Makuye Avatar

    Hydrology is an interesting subject, yet poorly understood by the public, including irrigators.*
    Such seeming drains as rivers when allowed their natural flows, are significant maintainers of groundwater and aquifers. In mediterranean climates and drought, one can see what occurs, if in places only in microcosm.

    High water levels tend not to draw from groundwater, leaving water tables close to or even at surface of surrounding lands.
    As rivers lower, more of the water table above their height, reverses, draining into them.

    * In California’s Central Valley, for example, once comprising over 90% of that state’s wetlands (now gone. CA has lost 95% of its wetlands due to diversion), a massively productive flyway, anadromous salmon producer through the undammed rivers from Shasta to san Joaquin, lost up to 4 feet of elevation following diversion and groundwater pumping.
    The vast floodplain of the Rio Brazos de Dios, from above Houston TX to the Galveston and Gulf coast, was once magnificent grassland with bison and related fauna comprising a rich ecosystem. Now in that ooil- and groundwater-extracted area, many portions lie below sea level. Thus, last years Hurricane flooding is a predictable event for more reasons than increased hurricane intensity in that present vast oil-processing blighted subsident landscape.
    Incredible dessication occurs, from the diminishing periodic systems of Nevada’s Humboldt Sink, the lost massive lakes east of the Sierra Nevadas, to the once huge Lake Cahuilla, where when the Colorado River reached the sea, it would deposit enough silt to overflow into the Imperial and Coachella Valleys,creating flourishing aquatic life for over a century at a time.
    that central Valley was also a massive periodic lake as recently as the 1860s.
    More, Tulare Lake, over the slight divide to the south, was the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi River. Present day humans would not recognize that Central Valley, although in 1983, I passed the momentarily filled lake during a day and a night, when it had received runoff fromm good snow years in the southern Sierra for the last time.
    Right now, the Klamath, fed by Cascades & Siskiyou snows, tends to turn into deadly heated pools too warm and impassable for salmon whose massive runs of just 100 years ago, are gone, dammed and diverted to inappropriate ag, occupied by nephro- and hepato-toxic algae in summers, all to feed the same wasteful monocropping of hay (well, potatoes, too in Modoc’s dry, quickly drained summers) and the ag of the now-dessicated Central valley with its leveed shunts.
    The great Colorado River itself never meets the sea, in part due to the growing Rocky Front Range megalopolis, which siphons it through tunnels, although Phoenix, Las Vegas (Spanish:” the meadows” for its having been a periodic wetland), Los Angeles and the two ag valleys once submerged periodically by Lake Cahuilla.

    too long a comment, yet not addressing many other problems like the dammed Snake and almost countless great basin areas.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner