PENDLETON, Ore. — Marika Sitz knew she wanted to return to Eastern Oregon. Her timing couldn’t be better.
After graduating from Pendleton High School in 2011, Sitz moved to Silicon Valley where she earned her bachelor’s degree in human biology from Stanford University. Her focus was predominantly on food and agricultural systems, which led to an interest in water development and sustainability.
Now, as local farmers find themselves on the cusp of new irrigation supplies that could mean hundreds of millions of dollars for the basin, Sitz has come home to revive the dormant Oregon Water Coalition, a nonprofit group formed 25 years ago to promote water resources.
Sitz, 24, was officially hired in January as coordinator for the coalition. She will serve at the recommendation of an eight-member board of directors, including longtime irrigators and irrigation district managers.
“It’s nice to be able to come back to a small town like this and have an opportunity like this,” Sitz said.
Sitz is a former PHS athlete and Lantern Cup winner, the school’s highest award for personal and classroom achievement. Her family comes from a cattle ranching background and she said rural issues have always informed her way of thinking — even after college in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Sitz graduated from Stanford in 2015, and followed that up with a one-year fellowship with the Bill Lane Center for the American West. It was there she became involved with a program called Water in the West, researching solutions to the region’s increasing water shortage.
From there, Sitz said she began looking at opportunities in Oregon and came across the Northeast Oregon Water Association, or NOWA. That’s the group working to negotiate new mitigated water rights for Umatilla and Morrow county farmers out of the Columbia River, a delicate and lengthy effort with potentially huge economic rewards.
Sitz reached out to J.R. Cook, executive director for NOWA and a board member for the Oregon Water Coalition. Cook said he felt Sitz would be a great fit for the water coalition, which formed in 1992 to educate and do outreach, but had largely become inactive and nearly dissolved last year.
“(Sitz) lit a fire under us,” Cook said.
With Sitz on board, Cook said the coalition has been reborn. And though Sitz said she is still learning the ropes, she is already at work rebuilding their website and re-establishing their community partnerships.
“It’s a little bit about finding our place,” she said.
Ray Kopacz, coalition vice president and manager of the Stanfield Irrigation District, said it will take some time to get themselves organized after years of sitting in limbo.
“It never really died. We just lost some key people who were helping run it,” Kopacz said.
Sitz plans to stay with the coalition for two years before applying to law school. She said the relationships she builds now will be invaluable down the road.
“Water is not going to become any less important in the future,” she said. “It’s just key to the economic engine of so many areas.”
When Sitz leaves, Cook said they hope to continue recruiting new blood to carry on the work that’s already been done. It has taken 30 years of work to get to where they are now, he said, and it will be up to the new guard to see many of these projects to fruition.
“The goal is to bring people Marika’s age back our way to work for northeast Oregon,” Cook said.