Worst water year ever
"Every farmer out here is desperate and doing everything possible to save water," says Richard Coleman, who farms 400 acres in Jefferson County. He says he's already lost $1 million in revenue this year.
"It's water wars over here. We're fighting over every drop of water that comes off of someone's farm."
"We're all so scared for our livelihoods. When there's nothing growing, you have nothing to sell, but the costs are still there, if not higher," says Linda Anspach of DD Ranch in Terrebonne, "but I don't have room to complain because Jefferson County is in a much more precarious situation."
Every farmer you talk to in the Deschutes Basin says the same thing: This is the worst water year they've ever seen.
The records go back 75 years to when irrigation first came to Jefferson County.
The Wickiup Reservoir, located about 40 miles southwest of Bend, stores water for the North Unit Irrigation District, which serves Jefferson County. Wickiup has never been lower at this time of year.
Jefferson County farmers have never had a smaller water allotment or paid so much for it.
And farmers throughout the Deschutes Basin hear rumors the water will turn off earlier than ever this year.
In an important development last week, Gov. Kate Brown declared a drought emergency for Jefferson and Deschutes counties. Brown has declared a drought emergency for a total of 10 counties in Oregon.
Century old water rights system
The soil is dust dry everywhere in the Deschutes Basin, but a century-old water rights system makes matters far worse for Jefferson County farmers.
"North Unit is taking the brunt of it," says Mike Britton, the director of the North Unit. "The water laws are 100 years old and that was the hierarchy and the structure that was put in place way back then. If it was me, I'd say yes, it's time for modernization of water law."
North Unit was last irrigation district to form and thereby the last in line for water rights in the basin. Of those drawing water from the Deschutes River, Swalley Irrigation District was first in 1899, then Central Oregon Irrigation District in 1900, Tumalo and Arnold registered in 1905. North Unit didn't sign up until 1913.
Other irrigation districts get first dibs on the water, and the NUID gets what's left over. Those 14 years could mean the difference between failure and survival for Jefferson County farmers more than century later.
While Jefferson County farmers have barely enough water to plant even half of their fields, some have the impression Deschutes County farmers swim in water.
"I know farmers who turn their water on the very first day and they never turn it off," says Coleman. "They'll tell you, 'It just runs off my place'."
Begging for water
After five years of steady decline and now seeing the mucky bottom of the Wickiup Reservoir, NUID is ready to plead with COID to share any surplus water.
"Desperate times call for desperate measures," says Britton, "and this is where we are today."
Britton says this is a first: directly asking users to share their water. "We hear quite often that hobby farmers don't always want their water or have more water than they need. If there are people willing to share their water, there should be a means to do it."
Here's where Brown's drought emergency declaration could help. Britton says water laws usually stand in the way of such sharing. Drought declaration could relax some of the regular burdens in place during typical water years.
Not a drop to spare
"I'm terrified for myself, of course, but for all the people who earn a livelihood in Jefferson County." Anspach, a COID customer, sympathizes with North Unit farmers, but she does not have a drop of water to spare.
She hasn't had enough water to grow hay for her cattle, so had to spend money buying a month's worth of hay. She can't afford to keep that up. "I'm already planning to sell a good part of my herd. Cattle prices are in the toilet because people are dumping their animals because they know they aren't going to be able to feed them. And the hay prices are going to go through the roof because there's going to be so much demand and so little supply."
Dead grass and brown fields hurt her wedding bookings and agri-tourism. She may not be able to grow pumpkins for her fall Pumpkin Patch celebration. All of her revenue streams are drying up.
"It's not going to be commercial operators like me," says Anspach about sharing water. "It's going to be hobby farms that don't gain a living off of their property."
"If North Unit had the same amount of water as COID, their production would be phenomenal," says Frank Maricle, who farms in four irrigation districts. "But that's not how this world works."
Maricle is a custom farmer. He doesn't own any land. "I'm not going to buy land in Central Oregon because how could you guarantee that you'd have water 20 years from now?"
Instead, he leases land and buys standing hay from farmers. It allows him the agility to change with the market.
It also gives him perspective on how water rights work in four different irrigation districts. Last year, 400 acres of hay in Jefferson County yielded 600 to 700 tons. He predicts that same acreage will produce only 400 tons this year. Four hundred acres of hay in Deschutes County, with the extra water, Maricle estimates, would yield 500 tons.
Maricle doesn't think many COID users will step up to share their water because the rules say if they don't use their water, they lose their water.
Campaign presents creative plan
Jefferson County Commissioners gifted NUID with $10,000 from its disaster fund for water marketing.
"We'll purchase radio spots and TV spots or a full-page ad in the Bend Bulletin," says Britton, "Basically a plea to people in the basin to cut back on water, or if you don't need your water, leave it for a farmer."
The drought declaration may allow for creative application of the rules.
"You have to use your water allotment once in five years for beneficial use," says Britton. He suggests a new interpretation of beneficial use. "You can lease your water (for example, to a North Unit farmer) and that's considered beneficial use."
"That would be huge. I would stand behind that," says Maricle. "Because if it's a choice for the landowner and if they don't have their rights jeopardized by doing that."
Rising value of water rights
Maricle says don't expect people in mansions or owners of lush golf courses to sacrifice their water rights.
"The sad reality is a property that's worth $2-3-million with 10 acres, a farmer in Jefferson County could never pay enough money to buy that water away from that property," says Maricle, "because that same $2-3-million property with no water rights is worth much less, a million or 2-million less."
"I would love to retire," says Coleman. "After 50 years of farming, my body is literally wore out. I'm due for two brand new knees. There's not much left of me." Coleman has been trying to sell 155 acres for a while now, half-heartedly, he admits, because he needs the water allotment attached to that land. The last potential buyer backed out because of the drought. "That's the first question they ask, what's your water situation. Now our property values are going down."
How much will sharing water help?
If COID customers decide to share water with NUID customers, Jefferson County farmers will still have a tough year.
COID Manager Craig Horrell sent this statement: "As part of our drought management strategy, COID committed to and began sharing up to 100 cubic feet per second of operational water to NUID, Arnold and Lone Pine Irrigation Districts. We will be able to meet the first year of the Habitat Conservation Plan while helping other districts stretch their water supplies and stay on longer"
"It will ensure we make it through the season and fulfill the allotment we have set," says Britton, "and be able to leave some water in Wickiup Reservoir instead of draining it like we did last year."
The last line of Gov. Brown's declaration reads, "I am encouraged to hear that local irrigators in these two counties are working together to seek creative solutions around sharing available water."
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