Looking back 40 years, Jeff Stone said the greenhouse and nursery industry was barely a blip on the radar of Oregon agriculture.

Now nursery stock is consistently among the state’s most valuable farm commodities, with sales of $947 million in 2017.

Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, said the momentum really took off in the 1980s and 1990s. Based in Wilsonville, about 15 miles south of Portland, the association represents 800 members, including 600 growers.

It is a success story driven by the availability of water, along with the Mediterranean climate — cool, wet winters followed by hot, dry summers — and rich soils of the Willamette River Basin.

However, a proposal to reallocate the water in reservoirs behind 13 federal dams in the basin threatens to stymie that growth, Stone said, leaving irrigation supplies well short of future needs.

The reallocation plan is part of an expansive review of the Willamette Basin dams, as state and federal agencies seek to balance water resources in a way that will allow the economy to thrive, as well as protect endangered fish and the environment.

Getting a new water right in the basin is extremely difficult, Stone said, which is why the allocation of stored water means so much for the region’s farms and ranches. How the water is shared will impact any new development and shape the Willamette Valley for decades to come.

“There is no other water to get,” he said. “This is the last water in the valley.”

Feasibility study

To understand the Willamette Basin Review, it takes a full picture of the river system.

Between 1940 and 1969, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a series of 13 dams, primarily for flood control though federal law also allows the stored water to be used for a variety of other purposes, including irrigation, hydro power, municipal water supplies and irrigation.

Altogether, the Willamette Basin dams hold back 1.6 million acre-feet of water, called “conservation storage.”

An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, enough to cover a football field with a foot of water.

Another federal agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, currently holds the only rights to that water, which is designated for irrigation. Just 75,000 acre-feet is contracted annually for that purpose.

The basin review is an effort to formally reallocate conservation storage to meet the needs of a growing region. In addition to agriculture, the Willamette Valley is home to Oregon’s three largest cities — Portland, Salem and Eugene — and nearly 70% of the state’s total population of 4.19 million.

By 2050, the population is expected to reach 5.58 million people, according to the state Office of Economic Analysis.

The Oregon Water Resources Department began discussing a joint feasibility study with the Corps back in 1996 to study water reallocation. The process was put on hold in 1999, when Upper Willamette River chinook salmon and steelhead were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The National Marine Fisheries Service released its 2008 Biological Opinion, or BiOp, to manage the dams and in-stream flows for fish, improving water quality and access to habitat. With the BiOp in place, OWRD and the Army Corps signed a new cost-share agreement in 2015 for the water reallocation study, and issued a tentative plan in 2017.

Under the proposal, agriculture would receive 327,650 acre-feet of water annually; cities and municipalities would receive 159,750 acre-feet; and fish and wildlife would receive a little more than 1.1 million acre-feet.

Laurie Nicholas, project manager for the Army Corps in Portland, said she believes it is an equitable distribution, though she knows it is bound to generate controversy.

“We’re trying to find a way to balance the purposes,” Nicholas said. “We know they are often competing.”

Agricultural concerns

Representatives of farm groups and irrigation districts have expressed their concerns, focused mainly on how shorting irrigation supplies will hinder farm production and the state’s economy.

Gail Greenman, director of national affairs for the Oregon Farm Bureau, said the allocation for agriculture is “woefully inadequate,” and could potentially take away the ability to grow more specialty crops.

“In the Willamette Valley, this is some of the most priceless farm ground in the country, if not the world,” Greenman said. “When these allocations are divvied out, we’re never going to get more. We’re always going to be fighting for what we have.”

The Willamette Valley is home to more than 170 different types of crops — everything from Christmas trees to wine grapes. The region supports 18,000 farms with more than 1.7 million acres, growing commodities with a total market value of $2.2 billion.

Water shortages already occur during drought years, Greenman said. She added the reallocation plan lacks any assurance that agriculture will receive its full allotment each year, making it difficult for farmers to plan for expansion or invest in infrastructure.

“We do have low water years and drought years. It is hard to predict when those are going to occur,” Greenman said. “That certainty is critical when it comes to the reallocation.”

Stone, with the Oregon Association of Nurseries, pointed to a section in the feasibility study that determines future water needs for agriculture. He said the methodology used in the report was incomplete, and resulted in a much lower allocation than they were expecting.

“We initially thought we were going to get half (of the stored water),” Stone said. “Agriculture really got the short end of the stick, in my opinion.”

Brent Stevenson, manager of the Santiam Water Control District, said the study contains an arbitrary boundary that limits irrigation potential to areas within 4 miles of streams. Yet Stevenson said half of his district in the eastern Willamette Valley lies outside that boundary and already relies on irrigation water.

The Santiam Water Control District provides irrigation for 17,000 acres from the North Santiam River and Detroit Reservoir, as well as drinking water for the city of Stayton, east of Salem. The district also includes an additional 7,000 acres that has the potential to become high-value farmland in the future, Stevenson said.

But without enough stored water, Stevenson said any expansion would undoubtedly be restricted.

“If there is not enough to go around in the whole system because of the shortcomings of a future needs analysis, then I see agriculture being limited in the future,” Stevenson said.

Endangered fish

Perhaps the biggest challenge, sources say, is figuring out how to share the water with salmon and steelhead.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is consulting with the Corps and state Water Resources Department about the reallocation plan to ensure it meets criteria for native fish survival.

Marc Liverman, Willamette branch chief for the National Marine Fisheries Service West Coast Region, said they have submitted an analysis of the water reallocation proposal and are now awaiting further feedback from the Corps.

Liverman said three locations in particular — Detroit, Cougar and Lookout Point dams — are significant barriers to salmon and steelhead. Without being able to build fish ladders, he said the focus has been trapping and hauling fish around the dams, while hatchery operations are intended to bolster populations.

A coalition of conservation groups sued the Army Corps and National Marine Fisheries Service in March 2018 over Willamette River salmon and steelhead recovery. The lawsuit is pending.

Nicholas, with the Army Corps, said she believes the reallocation plan will not impact the agency’s ability to meet minimum in-stream flows for fish.

“We don’t see a big change in our ability to meet the BiOp flow objectives with the reallocation,” she said.

All sides recognize there is a limited amount of water. Nicholas said it is probably unrealistic to build any more dams, blocking further access to upstream fish spawning habitat. That means the storage they have now is what they will have over the next 50 to 70 years.

Considering every sector’s peak demands, Nicholson said it adds up to more than 2 million acre-feet, which is more than the 1.59 million acre-feet available. Greenman, with the Farm Bureau, said farmers are not advocating for the whole supply, but want to make sure the burden is being shared equitably.

“We need to be able to deliver water to the economy of the Willamette Valley,” Greenman said.

Moving forward

There is still a ways to go before water reallocation in the Willamette Basin becomes a reality.

Ultimately, the plan needs to be passed by Congress after reviews by the Corps and the federal budget office. Nicholas said there is no timeline to complete the process.

In a recent meeting hosted by the Salem-based Strategic Economic Development Corporation, or SEDCOR, U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., said reallocation is the most important issue facing the basin.

“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,” Schrader said.

Erik Andersson, president of SEDCOR, said the results could play a significant role in future business expansion or retention. Agricultural industries — including food and beverage processing — employ 15,000 people in Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties alone, with an annual payroll of $510 million. That’s more than 9% of all local private sector jobs.

“You realize that for us at least in the Valley here, we have a long history of agriculture, a long history of water-dependent industries,” Andersson said. “This whole region kind of depends on a lot of the same resources. We just need to make sure all the interests are getting the same level of information.”

SEDCOR will host a second meeting about basin water reallocation April 18 at Chemeketa Community College’s Northwest Wine Studies Center in West Salem, from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.

Stevenson, with the Santiam Water Control District, said they are working closely with Schrader and other members of Oregon’s congressional delegation to emphasize the needs of agriculture.

“This could mean changes in the Willamette River system that we haven’t seen since the construction of the facilities themselves,” he said. “It’s important to get it right.”

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