It was a crisis more than 60 years in the making.
The Umatilla Basin in northeast Oregon is home to some of the state’s most productive farmland, famously growing more than 200 different crops including wheat, corn, potatoes and watermelon. Irrigation pivots dominate the countryside, transforming scrubby desert into lush, green fields.
The development of the region’s farms and cities, however, came at a price underground. As early as 1958, regulators began to see groundwater declines in the Butter Creek area of Umatilla and Morrow counties. Between 1976 and 1991, the Oregon Water Resources Department designated four critical groundwater areas within the basin — Butter Creek, Stage Gulch, Ordnance Basalt and Ordnance Gravel — to address the shrinking aquifers.
The designation allowed the Water Resources Commission to restrict groundwater pumping, taking once valuable agricultural land out of production or returning it to dryland crops.
“It is depressing, in the middle part of June, driving around these critical groundwater areas and seeing the lost opportunity,” said Craig Reeder, former vice president of River Point Farms in Hermiston, Ore., the largest grower of fresh onions in the country.
Despite curtailing wells, regulators warn that groundwater levels have continued to decline in the basalt aquifers, albeit at a slower rate.
The declining aquifers and the need for irrigation water have led Reeder and others to seek creative ways to balance the needs of the region. On the one hand, pumping groundwater wells should be minimized to allow the aquifers to recover. On the other hand, strict state rules protect the Columbia River and its endangered fish.
Reeder now serves as chairman of the Northeast Oregon Water Association, or NOWA, a nonprofit corporation founded in 2013 to seek and coordinate solutions to the basin’s water woes. The plan, revealed in 2014, involves building three massive new pipelines, up to 78 inches in diameter, to deliver Columbia River water to farms and ranches in the critical groundwater areas. By doing that, farmers would no longer have to pump water from the aquifers, allowing them to recharge.
The water would be temporarily offset, or mitigated, by area municipalities with certified water rights that are transferred and left in the river.
Wooed by promises of economic and environmental benefits, Oregon lawmakers approved $11 million in grants during the 2015 Legislature for the pipelines. After years of negotiating with key environmental groups and officials, Reeder said they are now on the cusp of moving forward.
“Everybody has really banded together on this,” Reeder said. “It’s been really fun to see.”
Getting to this point was no easy task.
The NOWA proposal builds on previous recommendations by the Columbia River-Umatilla Solutions Task Force, which started in 2012 with support from then-Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. Its vision was to use water from the nearby Columbia River to aid the ailing aquifers, but do it without harming fish that are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
J.R. Cook, who was a member of the task force and has been active in the region’s water issues for 15 years, went on to establish NOWA. He said the plan hinges on the three pipelines to deliver water to farms from the Columbia River in exchange for farmers agreeing not to use their wells.
“A lot of our farmers are on 100 percent groundwater, so they don’t have any other source,” Cook said of the current situation. “Our initial goal is to see if, just by relieving pressures on the system, can we stabilize and begin to see a reverse in the trend of groundwater static level declines in our basin.”
The project is divided into three regions. The East Project taps into the Columbia River east of Hermiston and runs about eight miles south to Despain Gulch. The West Project, meanwhile, begins at the Port of Morrow near Boardman, Ore., and runs eight miles to an irrigation canal owned by the Columbia Improvement District.
Both projects could break ground in early 2019 as they secure bank financing, and go online by the 2020 irrigation season. The original completion deadline for the state grant was 2019, though Cook said they are working toward a one-year extension with the Water Resources Department.
“These projects are shovel-ready,” Cook said. “The landowners are working on their various resolutions and commitments, but they’re really gunning to try and get moving.”
A third pipeline, named the Ordnance Project — formerly known as the Central Project — is still in flux after the Westland Irrigation District, based in Echo, Ore., was forced to abandon ownership to defend itself against a lawsuit alleging misappropriation of senior water rights. That case was ultimately dismissed by a circuit judge in Baker County.
As a condition of the $11 million state grant, each new pipeline must be publicly owned and operated. In the case of the East Project, 13 landowners had to form a new entity, named the East Improvement District, covering 26,500 irrigated acres.
Carl St. Hilaire, of JSH Farms in Hermiston, serves as the district chairman. He said members faced a steep learning curve working to finance the $46 million pipeline, especially since the district has no credit history. The East Project will receive $7 million in state funding, with landowners committing the remaining $39 million in equity and debt service.
“Given the amount of private risk capital involved in this project, it has not been easy and we have encountered many forks in the road since the funding was approved,” St. Hilaire said. “But to be at a point where we are finally seeing the finish line in moving the East Project forward is a testament to the resilience and determination of the (district) members and the region.”
Greg Juul, a Hermiston potato farmer and district member, summed it up as “truly a community effort.”
“It’s a big lift for this community to come together and get this done,” Juul said.
The process has been more straightforward with the West Project, since it is owned by the existing Columbia Improvement District. That pipeline is estimated to cost $35 million, with $4 million from the state and $31 million in private investment.
Perhaps nowhere in the region is the value of irrigation better illustrated than at Madison Ranches in Echo.
Jake Madison, the fourth-generation president of the family farm, drove his pickup along a dirt road crossing the property, stopping at one point to survey fields of dry grass and sagebrush. Then, as if to prove his point, he went in the opposite direction where the road overlooks a mosaic of green circles and neighboring dairy farms.
The visual juxtaposition is backed up by hard numbers. Dryland wheat, grown without irrigation, produces roughly $100 per acre. Add 1 acre-foot of water, and the value jumps to $500 per acre.
An acre-foot covers an area about the size of a football field with 1 foot of water.
Add 3 acre-feet, and farms can grow just about any high-value crop, such as potatoes and onions, at full rotation, earning up to $5,000 per acre.
High-value crops also require more workers to grow, harvest and process. In late 2017, Lamb Weston announced a $250 million expansion of its french fry plant in Hermiston, with the capacity to handle another 300 million pounds of raw potatoes annually, creating 170 new jobs. A similar expansion of the company’s facility in Boardman was finished in 2014.
Madison, who also serves on the NOWA board, said the West Project will directly benefit his farm by allowing Madison Ranches to become a full member of the Columbia Improvement District. Currently, Madison Ranches is what’s known as an “excess user” in the district, meaning it receives irrigation water for a portion of the growing season until demand outweighs supply, typically by June.
The West Project will more than double the Columbia Irrigation District’s boundary, Madison said, allowing farms to water more high-value crops that, in turn, will bolster the local economy.
“We’re excited to be able to show what we can do, and what our region is capable of doing economically,” Madison said.
NOWA figures the pipelines will spur 3,000 new jobs and $600 million in increased business activity, justifying the state’s investment in the project.
But Cook said the project is about more than economic growth. The main impetus, he said, is using the Columbia River to recover and stabilize the basalt aquifers, which would benefit the entire region.
Earlier this year, Gov. Kate Brown formed the Umatilla Basin Basalt Stabilization Work Group, which met three times between October and December. The group recommended the state create a five-year pilot program beginning in January 2020, to measure aquifer recovery in areas around Stage Gulch and Butter Creek.
In a Dec. 17 letter to Brown, the group requested $500,000 per year for five years to fund a basalt bank trust account, overseen by a local committee. The money, Cook said, would offset the cost difference for farmers who agree to use irrigation from the Columbia River pipelines instead of pumping their wells — allowing 7,000 acre-feet of groundwater to stay in the ground each year.
“Obviously, the overall goal basin-wide is to raise all boats,” Cook said.
Chris Pair, a spokesman for the governor, said that stabilizing groundwater in the Umatilla Basin “has long been a priority for Gov. Brown,” and she is considering whether to fund the recommendation.
Darrin Ditchen, of Golden Valley East LLC in Stanfield, Ore., served as a farmer representative on the basalt stabilization work group. He said the basin is on the verge of a pathway to recover the aquifers, which would create a more sustainable, climate-resilient region with healthy economic growth.
“Golden Valley East is proud to be a part of this effort and we are looking forward to the incremental steps laid out to finally fix our basin’s water supply issues,” Ditchin said.
Getting access to Columbia River water in Oregon by itself is a monumental undertaking.
The river is subject to state regulations that require environmental mitigation for new water rights pumped during the irrigation season. Early on, Cook said the basin committed itself to bucket-for-bucket mitigation — that is, for every bucket taken from the river, it is replaced by water from another source.
“If we can do bucket-for-bucket mitigation, we can show that we’re not impacting fish on the (river’s) main stem,” Cook said.
Phase I of the project calls for 180 cubic feet per second of water from the Columbia River. Temporary mitigation was secured by taking existing, certified water rights for municipalities, including the Port of Umatilla and the cities of Boardman and Umatilla, and legally transferring the water in-stream for up to 30 years.
Racquel Rancier, senior policy coordinator for the Oregon Water Resources Department, said the agency has to date transferred 91.2 of the 180 cubic feet per second of mitigation water. As of Dec. 18, two of eight surface water applications have been issued as permits. The other applications, she said, are being processed.
“These water rights must be fully mitigated prior to issuance,” Rancier said.
Reeder, the NOWA chairman, said water rights have been negotiated carefully with environmental groups to ensure the projects will not harm fish. Part of the pipelines’ design includes federally approved fish screens to avoid inadvertently sucking juvenile fish into the water intake.
WaterWatch of Oregon, a nonprofit state water watchdog, was involved in negotiations for the Columbia River water rights and mitigation. Kimberley Priestley, a senior policy analyst for the organization, said they appreciate farmers in the basin working within the confines of the law to find a path forward.
“What is of critical importance to us is we find solutions that are within the bounds of the law. This, I think, is a good example,” Priestley said. “The permits are conditioned to ensure bucket-for-bucket mitigation at or above the point of impact for the life of the permit.”
After many years of meetings, planning and tours of the basin, Reeder said he and others are confident the project is now on the verge of success.
“We won’t get another shot at this in our generation,” Reeder said.