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Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, on 3,000 acres of alfalfa he grows in Oregon’s Harney Basin. Behind him is a low elevation sprinkler application irrigation center pivot, which conserves water.

Farmers in Oregon’s Harney Basin would be paid to stop irrigating crops under a bill that’s intended to alleviate groundwater depletion in the region.

Providing incentives for irrigators to stop pumping may prove less costly than a purely regulatory approach, which would likely provoke legal battles, said Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, chief sponsor of House Bill 2257.

“Money upfront in an investment will probably reduce litigation in the basin,” Owens said during a recent legislative hearing on the proposal.

The bill would provide $500,000 in seed money for the approach, which could be amplified with money from the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.

The agency pays 70% of such project costs, with 30% matching funds from other sources.

The federal government has already allocated funds for CREP under the 2018 Farm Bill for projects that meet its criteria, Owens said. “It is sitting there, waiting.”

The Oregon Farm Bureau supports HB 2257 as a matter of fairness to growers and to ensure the economical viability of the Harney Basin community, said Mary Anne Cooper, the group’s vice president of public policy.

“You’ve had folks who’ve developed water in reliance on the state’s assurance there was water available, and it turns out there was not,” Cooper said, noting that such payments could help farmers transition to non-irrigated forms of agriculture.

Water regulators have already prohibited new well-drilling in the Harney Basin but groundwater pumping is still estimated to surpass natural aquifer recharge in the area.

Irrigators, environmentalists and community members are working on a collaborative solution to the problem, but it’s possible the Oregon Water Resources Department will have to shut down some wells to prevent further groundwater declines.

Paying farmers to cease irrigation wouldn’t solve the problem entirely, but it could be an important step in conjunction with other tools, said Owens, who estimates about $40 million would be needed for the program over time.

Money from CREP is already being used to ease groundwater problems in other Western states, said Ken Bierley, a consultant who’s advising the Harney Basin collaborative group.

The goal would be to enroll about 20,000 acres in the program, which could cut groundwater withdrawal by 40,000-50,000 acre-feet per year, Bierley said. “That’s not an insignificant amount when you’re over-allocated by about two times that much.”

Under the bill, the state government would pay irrigators to voluntarily cancel their water rights while the federal government would provide conservation payments for planting cover crops.

Assistance from OWRD staff would be needed to document that irrigation was actually being ceased under the program.

Aside from potential litigation, regulatory irrigation restrictions are a blunt tool based on the seniority of water rights that can’t easily target specific geographic areas, Owens said.

By comparison, the incentive approach could act as a “scalpel” to cancel water rights in areas that would most help the aquifer, he said.

The approach could also act as a model for other regions facing groundwater shortages in Oregon, Bierley said. “If it works, there’s no reason it can’t be transferred to other basins.”

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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