Somehow, in a valley that gets an average of 55-plus inches of rain a year, farmers could find themselves facing a water shortage at some point in the future.
We should add that any shortages would be courtesy of the federal and state governments.
Currently underway is a government effort to divvy up the water stored behind 13 federal dams in the Willamette River Basin.
That 1.59 million acre-feet of water would seem to be enough to take care of farmers, fish and all other comers far into the foreseeable future. Yet the folks at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have already skewed the allocation in favor of fish. Slightly more than 69% would be set aside for fish, more than double the water allocated for people and agriculture combined.
We fully understand that the “endangered” salmon and steelhead native to the Willamette River and its tributaries need water. We also understand that thousands of other fish of the same species are reared in fish hatcheries along those same rivers.
What we don’t understand is why the people and economy of the most populous and most agriculturally productive parts of the state should take a backseat to fish.
We also don’t understand why, in the initial version of the allocation, agricultural irrigation was cut off 4 miles from any of the rivers. That seems arbitrary at best and an intentional means of throttling agriculture at worst.
But there’s hope for the region’s agriculture — maybe.
The Willamette Basin has a Mediterranean climate, meaning that winters and springs are wet and cool and summers and falls are warm and dry. That means irrigation is generally not needed in the winter and spring, when rain inundates the valley. Only in summer and early fall do most crops need a lot of added water.
That means there are times when lots of added irrigation is needed and other times — mainly in the winter — when relatively little is needed.
The 13 dams that have been built in the basin are mainly for flood control, but if that water is held back so it’s available when needed for irrigation, conflicts need not occur.
In the meantime, farm groups in the Willamette Valley need to keep a close eye on the development of this plan.
First, the overall allocation needs to be changed to allow the fish what’s needed and not a drop more.
Second, the allocations for agriculture and the state’s most populous region need to take into account the seasonal nature of their water use.
And third, more storage is needed — dams, reservoirs and aquifer recharge — to store more water in the winter so it will be available during the rest of the year for all uses.
U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., warned Willamette Valley agricultural groups earlier this year that the allocation deliberations need to be a top priority.
“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.”
Truer words were never spoken.