The agreement reached Feb. 15 to pursue additional irrigation water for parts of Eastern Oregon marks a giant leap forward for agriculture in the region -- and for the administration of Gov. John Kitzhaber.
The agreement, which 20 diverse interests signed, lists nine specific water-related actions and projects that the state will pursue. But more importantly, it marks a unique willingness to cooperate on the efforts.
The parties that signed the agreement are members of the Columbia River-Umatilla Solutions Taskforce, which Kitzhaber appointed last year to seek a workable compromise that would provide additional irrigation water to farmers in the Umatilla Basin and address competing interests such as endangered salmon runs. Facing declining aquifers, farmers there have been limited in the amount of irrigation water they could use.
In Eastern Oregon, limited water means limited crop choices and limited economic potential. Every additional acre-foot of irrigation water equates to a $25,000 increase in farm production, Craig Reeder, a member of the taskforce and manager of Hale Farms in Echo, Ore., told reporter Mitch Lies.
Using those figures, the 1,500 acre-feet of irrigation water initially being sought under the new agreement could mean a $37.5 million boost to the region's agricultural economy.
Considering that 5 trillion gallons of water flows past the region in the Columbia River, it was once thought that obtaining more irrigation water would be easy. But the fact that most of the demand for the Columbia's water occurs in the summer put the brakes on any hope of obtaining an "easy" water supply. The flow of the river drops, the need for water for salmon increases and irrigation demand peaks in the summer.
An impasse was avoided when irrigators recognized more summer irrigation water would face resistance from several directions, including environmental interests and the tribes. Instead, they sought water during the more robust winter flow of the Columbia. They also are seeking ways to store it, including recharging the aquifer.
Among the steps the Feb. 15 agreement calls for are:
* Expand the Umatilla Basin Water Commission's aquifer recharge project.
* Study building new reservoir storage in Juniper Canyon. The potential storage is estimated at 49,000 acre-feet of water, which could be pumped from the Columbia during the winter.
* Study repairing the Wallowa Dam, which could then store more water.
* Lease unused, developed Washington state water rights.
* Develop a Umatilla Basin water bank and brokerage.
* Invest in water conservation measures in the Wallowa Basin to provide additional water to the Umatilla Basin.
* Develop an agreement with Washington to protect water as it flows through that state for potential benefit to Oregon users.
* Discuss the potential for joint investments with Washington for winter water storage and release during the summer.
A few of these projects can be accomplished relatively soon, and others will take time and require cooperation from Washington state and federal agencies.
Our hope is that the momentum of this initial agreement will build and allow these projects to progress.
But all sides need to recognize that one more group also needs to sign on to the effort. The Oregon Legislature, which holds the state's purse strings, must also endorse these projects and provide funding.
Without that, the agreement will be left high and dry.
Columbia River-Umatilla Solutions Taskforce
Project Manager: Steve Greenwood, Portland State University
Conveners: Richard Whitman, Gov. John Kitzhaber's natural resource adviser, and Dennis Doherty, Umatilla County commissioner and chairman of the Umatilla Basin Commission. Other partners:
* Blue Mountain Community College
* Bonneville Power Administration
* Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation
* Northwest Power Conservation Council
* Oregon Department of Agriculture
* Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
* Oregon governor's office
* Oregon Water Resources Department
* Oregon State University College of Agricultural Sciences
* Port of Morrow
* Umatilla Basin Commission
* Umatilla County
* U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
* Washington Columbia River Water Program
* Private farm owners
* Umatilla Electric Co-op
* American Rivers
* Freshwater Trust
* Water Watch