Around Oregon

Wyden, Merkley work to safeguard future water supply for farmers, communities

Federal efforts to conserve water while improving irrigation for farmers would get $300 million a year under legislation introduced by U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.

“As our summers continue to get hotter and drier, we have to make sure that we have reliable, resilient water infrastructure that every farmer, tribe, and community in our state can count on,” Merkley said in a press release.

The bill, introduced in June, would provide the federal Bureau of Reclamation $300 million every year from 2035 to 2065 for projects related to water recycling and reuse, increasing use efficiency and improving facilities.

A third of the money would be used to expand the WaterSMART program, focused on local water efficiency and conservation projects that can help the American West stay resilient in the face of worsening drought. The bill also contains measures for protect river and ocean habitat.

Wyden and Merkley, Democrats from Oregon, introduced similar measures in 2020 and 2021 and parts of those bills were adopted into the 2020 federal spending package as well as the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.

The two senators have recently introduced several other bills in Congress related to water and drought protection in Oregon, including the Deschutes River Conservancy Reauthorization Act.

Benefits for farmers

One aim of the new legislation is to improve irrigation efficiency. William Jaeger, a professor in environmental economics at Oregon State University, said that most of the water used to irrigate plants is not absorbed by the plant, but instead drains into the soil or replenishes groundwater. This is especially common when unlined canals are used for irrigation.

Experts estimate about half of the water moved through such canals is lost through evaporation and draining into the soil.

Jaeger says this loss isn’t entirely bad for the landscape.

“Irrigation canals that aren’t lined actually provide the water for somebody else a little bit downhill,” he said. “If you line the canal, you improve irrigation efficiency which can help the person who installs it. But it can actually make a different group worse off.”

The legislation would fund replacing open canals with pipes.

Jon Souder, watershed management expert with the OSU Extension Service, said that such a change not only makes the water supply more reliable for farmers but provides a supply they can put to other uses within their water rights.

Kenneth Bierly, former deputy director for the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, said some of the most valuable aspects of the legislation were the habitat protection programs. They would provide direct payments or credits to agricultural producers who give away water to be used for habitat protection.

“Compensating agricultural producers who have the water right for the use of that water for other purposes is really important, because doing it only through regulation is not terribly effective,” he said.

“Oftentimes it’s presumed that regulation would deal with that, not the compensation. The value of the land particularly in Oregon, but also throughout the West, is dominated by water. If you don’t have water, you don’t have value. Recognizing that, I think, is particularly important,” he said.

According to Bierly, the proposed legislation would provide grants to local water agencies like the Malheur Watershed Council, enabling them to improve the irrigation infrastructure in the county.

“I just think it’s a good thing that Congress is discussing how to deal with the difficulty of managing water, particularly with the drought and the incredible value of irrigation water for agricultural production and the difficult balance that it created,” he said.

Worsening droughts

Experts said the legislation was aimed at minimizing the effects of unpredictable weather events, especially as droughts are rapidly becoming worse across the West.

“The amount of water on the planet is fixed. We cannot create water. We do not destroy water. So, we have a certain amount of water,” Jaeger said.

Jaeger said that agriculture may especially be at risk from worsening droughts and hotter summers because those conditions increase the amount of water plants need to grow.

“That’s going to mean everyone wanting more water, but even to serve existing water rights is likely to become more difficult,” he said.

Jaeger said that people need to be realistic about the amount of water that is available.

“Even without any change in population or water rights, we will require more water to have a healthy crop. As temperatures rise, we need to be forward looking and recognize that for the next few decades, that’s going to continue to be the case and farmers and communities need to be aware of that and plan for that,” he said.

One of his studies showed that the value of water varies greatly by season and by geography.

“Water can be really valuable in July and then you could be drowning in November. Water can be really valuable in one location because you don’t have access to good water. But half a mile away somebody can have a lot of water and they maybe don’t really put a high value on it,” he said.

But even though certain places have abundant water and others don’t, water problems can result from moving and storing water, Jaeger said.

The difficulty in conserving water, according to Jaeger, lies in the way that water rights work –– like property rights, but without a huge cost. People are able to get several gallons of water for a low price.

“[People] don’t pay the social cost or opportunity cost to that water, and that’s one of the ways in which we end up with water being used somewhat less efficiently than it could be,” he said.

Finding “the Oregon way”

Through this legislation, some water rights will be bought back from farmers to protect river species and restore shorebird habitats. The water that had been taken out of rivers or other water sources remains in place, which helps increase river flows and support fish and wildlife that depend on the river.

Souder of the Extension Service said that one of the greatest strengths of the bill was recognizing multiple values of water and finding cooperative solutions in what he called “the Oregon way.”

“These water projects are working a lot for rangeland improvements on one side of the state and working a lot for the watersheds on the wet side of the state. And so, that’s a larger story about cooperative conservation,” he said.

Souder said the long time period in the bill is needed because conservation and mitigation activities don’t happen overnight, especially when requiring cooperation among several agencies and private interests and dealing with contentious commodities like water.

“The environmental community and the ranching community have been able to cooperate as a result of these relationships that have been built with local groups, and having this money available is the kind of grease that makes it all work,” he said.

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