Eastern Oregon water reservations renewed

Irrigators in Eastern Oregon can develop up to 144,100 acre-feet of new water rights due to the renewal of “water reservations” in three river basins.

The Oregon Water Resources Commission has unanimously approved the renewal of water reservations in the Grande Ronde, Malheur and Owyhee basins, which were set to expire early next year.

The water was “reserved” for economic development by the Oregon Department of Agriculture nearly 30 years ago, when the state mandated minimum in-stream flows for environmental reasons.

However, few water rights have been established from the available reserved water since then.

Irrigation experts in Eastern Oregon say it’s unclear whether the story will play out any differently now that the reservations have been renewed for 20 years.

In eight out of 10 years, the Vale Irrigation District doesn’t receive enough water to make any available to junior water right holders, said Dan Fulwyler, its executive director.

In the years there is enough water for junior water right holders, it’s only available for about two weeks a year, he said.

Due to this scarcity, farmers probably wouldn’t want to invest in new water rights and facilities, Fulwyler said.

However, Fulwyler said it’s conceivable the water reservations could be useful in filling existing reservoirs.

“It would have to be for storage, because nobody would want it for just two weeks,” he said.

In the Grande Ronde Basin, irrigators have been discouraged by failed past attempts to create a new in-channel reservoir, largely because of potential environmental impacts, said Jed Hassinger, president of the Union County Farm Bureau.

“It’s been a challenge to find suitable storage in the basin here,” he said.

However, Union County is evaluating other options, such as off-channel or underground storage, under a $197,000 place-based planning grant from the Oregon Water Resources Department, Hassinger said.

The region can grow high-value crops, including peppermint, sugar beets and seed potatoes, that would justify investment in new water facilities, he said.

In the Owyhee Basin, irrigators have been more focused on boosting water efficiency than developing new water rights, said Jay Chamberlin, manager of the Owyhee Irrigation District.

“The big driver has been conservation,” he said. “The drought has expedited that.”

With the renewal of the Owyhee Basin’s reservation, irrigators will look at possible water right development, potentially involving the existing Owyhee reservoir, Chamberlin said.

Water storage and distribution are expensive, particularly with regulatory barriers, he said. “There’s going to be tremendous cost if anybody tries to put that into use.”

In recent years, the Owyhee reservoir hasn’t had much “carryover” water after the irrigation season, said Margaret Matter, ODA’s water resource specialist.

Reserved water could be used to establish a “buffer,” but the basin would have to experience consistently high flows to make more water available, said Matter.

In the Grande Ronde Basin, reserved water could be channeled into underground aquifers, eventually increasing late stream flows from groundwater, she said. “It would improve irrigation reliability, especially later in the season.”

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