Some Jefferson County farmers prepare to fight the frog
Farmer JoHanna Symons suffered from the water shortage this year. She blames the frog, and she's rallying forces to battle the amphibian. She wants Jefferson County farmers to join her.
"We're going to campaign for this," Symons told farmers at the North Unit Irrigation District meeting Tuesday night, July 13. "I'm hoping we can do something at lightning speed."
Symons and others want to step away from the Habitat Conservation Plan that diverts water from irrigation to protect habitat for endangered species such as the spotted frog and the bull trout.
"In a perfect world, how nice would it be to pull out of this agreement," says Symons, "because truthfully if we don't get water, this economy is done."
The people who drafted and signed that agreement aren't ready to break the contract just yet.
Five years of drought have brought Jefferson County farmers to the breaking point. They started the season with half the water they typically get. Conditions forced the NUID board to cut that allotment by 20% and cap daily deliveries to 1.5% of their remaining water.
Most farmers planted only half their land, then had to abandon some of the crops they planted.
Farmer Mike Elliot says some of his colleagues won't make it. "The HCP wiped them out."
Symons called in the big guns. Dave Duquette with Western Justice addressed the farmers.
"I want to fight," says Duquette. "I want to fight these guys. I want to ruin them, stop what they're doing to our good people."
People know Duquette for his support of Malheur County ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. "You kinda got hornswoggled by the Center for Biological Diversity," says Duquette.
Attorney Karen Budd-Falen, who worked on endangered species cases for the Trump administration, plans to fly into Madras Aug. 17 to meet with farmers to discuss how to dismantle the HCP or at least find some relief for farmers during severe drought.
"We spent 12 years working on (the HCP)." NUID Board Chairman Marty Richards doesn't want to undo the relationships they created building the habitat agreement. "We were able to negotiate what I believe is a better deal than most people would have been able to negotiate because we had the support of and allies of all these independent organizations."
The district has been releasing water for habitat for 12 years, and the district has had plenty of water. Even in the early years of the drought, it had surplus water.
After five consecutive dry years, and the worst water shortage in the unit's history, patrons noticed.
"For12 years, NUID has been living with this lawsuit." Josh Bailey, NUID's new manager, says the board got little input during arbitration. "Now people are coming out of the woodwork."
There's no question farmers would be better off this year if they could use the 28,000 acre feet of water reserved for endangered species, more than half again the 44,000 acre feet they'll get this season.
Richards says this was an unusual year.
"If it was just the HCP, we would be fine," says Richards. "And if we didn't have the HCP and had a drought, we probably could have survived that. But there's no way we can survive them both."
Richards hopes to refocus Symon's energies. He'd like her attorneys and activists to help the district get money to improve the system with piping and a $400 million pumping station drawing water from Lake Billy Chinook.
"Whether it's piping or building a pumping station, it's all conservation." Richards sees the benefit of working with environmentalist and the dangers of fighting against them. "What we have with the HCP is workable and we don't have a target on our back, and we have all kinds of allies to go to bat for us to help find this funding."
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