The front page of the May 28, 2010 Oregonian announced that Oregon Senator Merkley had secured $10 million in taxpayer funds to pay some Klamath farmers to not irrigate this season because of water shortages; a water shortage created by poor management of the resource. Instead of allowing the reservoirs to fill, water has been sent down the river, based on a questionable biological opinion, to protect the environment. The $10 million, while better than nothing, will do little to help the economy of the region.
Whether there is water available in the winter that could be stored for summer use is a hotly debated issue. Generations before us saw the wisdom of creating water storage when they settled in areas with rich soil but little rainfall. We are sending water downstream to the ocean in the winter, when we have the opportunity to store it for later use to provide irrigation for farmers, water for cities, and stream augmentation for fish. It doesn’t make any sense to waste a valuable resource, especially when food supplies and jobs are at stake.
Imagine how you would feel if you ran out of water at your home or business half way through the month because of rationing or the State took a portion of your property because they believed it would be better used by someone else. These are the challenges of irrigated agriculture in Oregon and if we don’t create additional water storage it will be the future challenge of municipal and industrial water users.
Under Oregon law, all water is publicly owned. A water right is a type of property right and is attached to the land where it was established. Landowners with water flowing through or past their property do not automatically have the right to divert the water without state permission. Water rights are property rights and no citizen should lose the use of their property without compensation. There is a misconception that rural people don’t pay for their water. No one pays for water in Oregon, but we all pay for the delivery system.
The perception that Oregon is a state of abundant rainfall is not accurate. The North coast, with average annual rainfall of 60 inches, is the wettest area of state. However, Eastern and Central Oregon have only about 7-10 inches of rain annually. There are still problems with water availability throughout the state in the summer. Stored winter water could eliminate many of those problems.
Farmers and ranchers in the eastern part of Oregon face even more concerns. Cattle need water to drink and food to eat. When a rancher puts hay out in the winter for cattle, he in many instances is also feeding deer, antelope and elk. Farmers and ranchers must be especially good stewards of the land to protect their investment and way of life.
Agriculture is a $4.8 billion industry in Oregon. The industry is important to the state for a number of reasons: providing jobs and paying taxes; raising safe food and fiber; and protecting open spaces. Agriculture needs water to survive and thrive.
Farmers don’t want to kill fish or destroy forests and range land, they just want to use their property to earn a living and provide the world with safe, adequate food and fiber. They need access to water in order to accomplish this worthwhile goal.
Bill Wilber of Burns is a District Vice President for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and President of Water for Life Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting irrigated agriculture in the West.