Farmer works to make Umatilla basin bloom

Mitch Lies/Capital Press Bob Levy stands in a field near Hermiston, Ore. He is being inducted into the Oregon State University College of Agricultural ScienceÕs Hall of Fame on Saturday, Oct. 31.

Study: Ground-water restrictions smother $340 million in local economic activity

By MITCH LIES

Capital Press

HERMISTON, Ore. -- On either side of Feedville Road just south of Hermiston are two fields farmed by Oregon State Board of Agriculture Chairman Bob Levy.

On one, where Levy has a full season's access to water, a potato crop is sprouting that could gross upwards of $3,500 an acre. On the other, Levy's water access is restricted under state regulations to about half what he'd like. It is planted to green peas, worth about $700 an acre.

Water-use restrictions on Levy's farm are similar to those on farms throughout the ground-water limited Umatilla Basin. The restrictions and a lack of an alternative water source cost the basin's farmers tens of millions of dollars annually in lost revenue.

But it's not because of a lack of effort on Levy's part.

Getting more water for the basin's farms and advancing agricultural causes in Eastern Oregon have become a way of life for Levy.

"I think it is extremely important for those of us who have time to try and improve the system, to try and continue to make opportunity for those who come behind us," Levy said.

"If we don't start preparing the way for the next generation, it's going to be extremely difficult for people in the next generation to want to be in agriculture," he said.

Levy, 62, was born and raised in Pendleton, just east of Hermiston. Back then, he said, Hermiston had little more than one stoplight and a pancake house.

Its population in 1970 was less than 5,000. Today, Hermiston's population tops 15,000.

The city's growth, according to community leaders, is directly tied to agriculture. And Levy, they said, has been integral to that growth.

"He's been one of the true leaders in developing irrigated agriculture in a new and innovative way," said Fred Ziari, head of IRZ Consulting in Hermiston. "He's very creative and he's done a tremendous amount of work to develop irrigated agriculture here."

The Port of Morrow recently completed an economic impact study showing that 55 percent of the jobs in Morrow and Umatilla counties are directly related to agriculture.

"It's what it's about," said Port of Morrow Director Gary Neal. "Our economy is all about irrigated agriculture, dryland farming, food processing and imports and exports associated with agriculture."

"Bob has been a key player in making the agricultural industry better," Neal said. "He's a great resource and a great asset."

Levy came out of Oregon State University in 1973 with a master's degree in agricultural economics. He worked briefly on the family farm, Cunningham Sheep Co. in Pendleton, worked for Lamb Weston for a year and spent a year at Eastern Oregon Farming Co.

By 1976, he was in the business of turning barren ground into farms.

"For a number of years, all I did was develop farms," Levy said. "We took them from sagebrush, drilled wells or got water out of the Columbia and put circles in and started farming them."

"The state was very cooperative from about 1976 to maybe the mid-'80s on helping getting water rights and helping you develop," Levy said. "Then, as the fish problem got bigger, that changed."

Today, ground-water restrictions in place on 63,000 of the basin's 200,000 acres of irrigation agriculture and a nearly 20-year-old state moratorium on new Columbia River water rights have stopped the development of new farms in the basin.

IRZ Consulting estimated in a 2009 economic impact study that providing farms full access to the basin's ground water would add $340 million to the area's economy and create 2,000 jobs.

State leaders in recent years have pumped upwards of $1 million into an aquifer recharge project to revitalize the area's ground water. It involves, among other components, diverting water from the Columbia River in winter months through irrigation canals and letting it seep into shallow alluvial aquifers. In dry summer months, a portion of the water is returned to the Columbia through the Umatilla River.

Project backers hope that on top of improving the area's economy, the project will help restore fish runs in the Umatilla River.

Levy, like others in the basin, hopes the plan works.

Levy is on the board of directors for Farmers Ending Hunger, chairs the Westland Irrigation District, is vice chairman of the agricultural committee for the Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area and works with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation on the tribes' water right settlement.

He is in his second four-year term on the State Board of Agriculture, currently serving as chairman.

"It's challenging," he said of the work on committees and boards.

"It's a whole different world," he said. "Farmers are used to having a problem and making a decision to solve the problem in a very timely fashion."

"Some things I've been working on for longer than a decade," he said, "and we still haven't reached a solution."

Staff writer Mitch Lies is based in Salem. E-mail: mlies@capitalpress.com.

Bob Levy

Age: 62

Occupation: Farmer

Family: Wife, Barbara (Bobby) Levy, three sons and a daughter

Education: Master's degree from Oregon State University in agricultural economics

Notable: Levy and Eastern Oregon rancher Jack Southworth will be inducted into the Oregon State University College of Agricultural Science's Hall of Fame in a small ceremony Oct. 31.

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