MT. ANGEL, Ore. — A proposal to reallocate nearly 1.6 million acre-feet of water stored behind 13 federal dams in the Willamette Basin could have an enormous impact on the region's agricultural economy,  U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader says.

Speaking at the sixth annual SEDCOR Ag Breakfast on Feb. 20 in Mt. Angel, Ore., the Oregon Democrat described water reallocation as the most important issue facing Willamette Valley farmers and ranchers in decades, and urged communities to get involved in the process.

"If you're not engaged, someone else is going to be engaged," Schrader said. "Instead of serving the dinner, you're going to be the dinner on the table, and they're going to eat you."

The Strategic Economic Development Corporation, better known as SEDCOR, is a nonprofit economic development organization based in Salem, Ore., serving Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties. About 215 people attended the gathering in Mt. Angel, and a second Ag Breakfast is scheduled for Feb. 27 at Chemeketa Community College's Northwest Wine Studies Center in Salem.

Agricultural industries — including food and beverage processing — employ 15,000 people across all three counties, with an annual payroll of $510 million, according to the state Employment Department. That's more than 9 percent of local private sector jobs.

Having reliable access to water is key for those businesses to grow, said Schrader, whose district includes Marion and Polk counties. While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Oregon Water Resources Department are jointly studying how and where to reallocate water in the basin, Schrader said farms and cities should be working to together to have a say in the decision.

"It's a complicated issue," Schrader said. "But I think the main goal, from my standpoint, should be to figure out how we can play heavily into a partnership ... and come up with a game plan for allocation over the next few decades."

The Army Corps operates 13 dams in the Willamette Basin that were built between 1941 and 1969 primarily for flood control, though Congress has also authorized stored water to be used for irrigation, hydropower, fish and wildlife. Another government agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, holds the only rights for water stored behind the dams.

However, there is no specific amount of water designated for any particular use, which is what the Army Corps is now trying to address under a joint feasibility study with the Oregon Water Resources Department. The latest proposal in 2017 called for 327,650 acre-feet of water for irrigation; 159,750 acre-feet for municipal and industrial water supply; and 1.1 million acre-feet for fish and wildlife.

Brent Stevenson, manager of the Santiam Water Control District, also spoke. He said the proposed allocation for irrigation is "woefully low and will limit agricultural production in the basin as we move into the future."

"It's not an easy playing field out there. There are a lot of interests in the water," Stevenson said. "We'll need to come together as a community, have that conversation and figure out what's important to us in the long term."

The Santiam Water Control District delivers irrigation water to 17,000 acres of farmland from the North Santiam River, as well as municipal water to the city of Stayton and industrial water to NORPAC Foods, a farmer-owned cooperative that processes locally grown vegetables.

Farmers in the area rely primarily on storing rainwater to irrigate their crops through the dry summer months, Stevenson said. Just 10 percent of water in the system comes from snowpack.

Water demand is increasing throughout the basin, according to the Army Corps, as cities continue to grow and in-stream flows are needed to help recover endangered populations of salmon and steelhead. The Army Corps is also currently studying whether and how to build a 300-foot-tall temperature control tower and floating screen at Detroit Dam on the North Santiam River to aid fish survival and passage.

The project is expected to cost between $100 million and $250 million, and could require draining Detroit Reservoir for up to two years, putting farms and cities in a difficult position. A draft environmental impact study is expected later this spring.

If water reallocation goes forward in the basin, Schrader said it will require congressional approval. He said the issue is getting close attention from his fellow Oregon colleagues, including Reps. Peter DeFazio and Suzanne Bonamici.

"This is a conversation that affects the entire Willamette Basin," he said.

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