Consultant says Oregon needs to 'catch up' with irrigated farmland
By MITCH LIES
PORTLAND -- Until recently, Oregon Wheat Growers League president Craig Reeder said he thought the world revolved around wheat, potatoes, onions and corn.
After spending a year across the table from environmental advocate Joe Whitworth, Reeder said his priorities have changed.
Today, Reeder said, he cares as much about protecting fish as protecting crop yields.
Whitworth, president of the Freshwater Trust, said Reeder isn't the only farmer to change priorities in recent years.
"We have a sensibility (among farmers) that I haven't seen in my dozen years of running this show," Whitworth said. "I think there is an opportunity and spirit of collaboration."
Also, Whitworth said, the environmental community needs to shift strategies from suing agencies over minor missteps to an outcomes-based strategy.
"The point is to get (salmon) off the (endangered species) list," he said.
Reeder and Whitworth were among five presenters in a breakout session at the Oregon Leadership Summit Dec. 12. The session gave rise to hopes Oregon can increase water withdrawals from the Columbia River.
In Oregon, just 10,500 acres of irrigated farmland have been developed since 1992, said Fred Ziari, an irrigation consultant from Hermiston. In that same time, Ziari said, Washington has developed 48,000 acres of irrigated farmland.
"Oregon needs to catch up," Ziari said.
Obtaining an additional 350,000 acre-feet of water would add 125,000 acres of new irrigated ground to the basin, $275 million to the area's farm-gate value, $1.01 billion to the area's annual economic activity and 4,226 jobs, Ziari said.
Restrictions on new water rights in Oregon are in place to protect threatened and endangered Columbia River salmon runs.
Restrictions on groundwater in the lower Columbia Basin also limit farm access to irrigation water, Ziari said.
Participants in the summit said it was significant that the Oregon Business Council placed Columbia River withdrawals on the agenda.
"Having water be an element of the Oregon Leadership Summit emphasizes that folks are serious about looking at Oregon's natural resources, and how we can use them and have an immediate impact on jobs and the economy," said Cindy Finlayson of Umatilla Electric Cooperative.
Finlayson has been working behind the scenes to increase water withdrawals from the Columbia since 2006.
Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, who participated in the breakout session, said he, too, was encouraged.
"There is absolutely an opportunity to do something," McLane said.
"We don't want to drain aquifers. We don't want to do harm," he said. "That being said, everyone is saying we need more acres in production."
McLane said he is considering developing legislation pushing forward negotiations for increasing irrigation water supplies.
"I think we need a bill that puts a deadline on that discussion, brings people to the table, equips them and says, 'Great, take your agreement, take your great ideas, and within 'X' amount of months, get it done,'" he said.
"While we debate, there are people out there who will skip meals so they can buy fuel," he said. "There are people out there who will go to bed hungry. There are people out there who are unemployed."
McLane said the bill would mandate certain acre-feet be allocated to new water rights and new production, and take into consideration the needs of conservation, fish habitat and aquifer levels.
Richard Whitman, Gov. John Kitzhaber's natural resources policy adviser, said Kitzhaber supports efforts to bring more water to Eastern Oregon agriculture if it can be done in a way that conserves fish habitat.
"We are working with partners in the conservation community, in the water and agriculture communities to see if there are new opportunities in how we manage the river," Whitman said.
Reeder said that ultimately research can provide the key to getting more water for irrigation in a way that conserves fish.
"Let's get out of the courtroom," he said. "Let's get out of the field, and let's get into the laboratory and figure this thing out.
About the trust
The Freshwater Trust is a nonprofit that was established in 2009 through a merger of Oregon Trout and the Oregon Water Trust and works to preserve and restore freshwater ecosystems.