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Local officials reflect on arduous 12-year, multi-entity process; map out the next 30 years of water use

PHOTO COURTESY OF FRESHWATERS ILLUSTRATED/USFWS - The Oregon spotted frog is one aquatic species covered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Habitat Conservation Plan.

"Without the Habitat Conservation Plan, Jefferson County could have been put out of business."

With that statement, Marty Richards sums up why he's devoted more than 12 years to help craft the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan. Richards farms in Jefferson County and has served on the board of the North Unit Irrigation District (NUID) for the past 23 years.

Farmers are just one group of a myriad of stakeholders in the Deschutes Basin to agree about who would get how much water and when.

"We didn't think it would take 12 years," says Mike Britton, NUID General Manager. "Then you take eight different irrigation districts, 40 irrigation board personalities and opinions that need to be considered in addition to ideas and opinions from a very large stakeholder base." Britton says involving fewer people may have brought the plan about more quickly, but the agreement wouldn't have the buy-in this plan has.

"I would say not all sides are satisfied. There are some in the environmental community who don't think the HCP does enough fast enough. Others think we gave too much away. Those involved from day one understand the complexity and the measures that make a difference for the basin and provide reliability for irrigators in the future."

The decisions come down to who has first rights to the water. "First in time, first in right. That's the original water law," says Richards. By that measure, NUID was last in line to claim water rights in the Deschutes Basin.

Conservationists won the battle to protect the endangered spotted frog and the bull trout. Because the NUID has junior water rights, water for the frog's habitat comes out of the NUID's winter water storage, taking much needed irrigation away from area farmers.

"We're really the only commercial agriculture in the basin," says Richards. Other irrigation districts have some farms, but the more urban districts use water more for hobby farms, parks, golf courses or landscaping. Yet because those districts have first dibs, or senior water rights, "they have no liability for the frog," as Richards puts it.

Conversations over the past 12 years brought those with senior water rights to the table. The irrigation districts worked closely together to share both the water and the sacrifices they made for the covered species.

Among other things, the HCP creates a system for those with senior water rights to conserve water, so they can bypass the saved water downstream to those with junior water rights. Ideally those with junior rights will have the water they need and enough left over for the spotted frog or the bull trout.

"A farm replaces flood irrigation with, for example, drip irrigation," explains Britton. "The water saved can then be shared or assigned to another user." Conservation projects, like piping open ditches or converting flood irrigation to sprinkler irrigation, can improve farm efficiencies. Those improvements save water to share with other water users.

Until this plan, operators with senior water rights had little incentive to conserve water. Incentives like grants and low interest loans help offset the costs of building more efficient systems.

"A lot of talking brought them (senior water rights holders) on board. They saw they were the only solution."

Richards witnessed the contentious fight over water in the Klamath Basin. "We learned that collaboration is much better than confrontation. Without collaboration we could not have gotten this accomplished."

"I'm a conservationist at heart and to see this kind of durable conservation in Central Oregon makes me very proud," says Bridget Moran with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Central Oregon is home for Moran. "I think the covered species, the bull trout and the spotted frog, are winners. The river overall is a winner, the patrons, all the irrigation districts and their customers."

For everyone involved this has been, as Moran describes, a tremendous workload over the past 12 years. She feels both relieved and eager.

"We have the road map," says Moran, "and all have the same road map, moving ahead on the same path."

The plan went into effect Jan. 1 and provides guidelines for water usage in the Deschutes Basin over the next 30 years.

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