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Aug. 17 meeting on Habitat Conservation Plan includes high-profile lawyers

PAT KRUIS/MADRAS PIONEER
 - Madras cattle business owner JoHanna Symons has organized a regional meeting in Redmond Aug. 17, which will feature agricultural rights legal experts to discuss the potential of amending the HCP agreement in hopes of providing more water for irrigation.

Tuesday, Aug. 17, farmers from around Central Oregon plan to meet with some legal big hitters to see if they can change the Habitat Conservation Plan in their favor.

The drought devastated Deschutes Basin farmers this year. Reserving water for endangered species only made matters worse.

"Everybody needs a paycheck to live in this world," says organizer JoHanna Symons. "And all these people aren't going to have a paycheck after this year."

In January, irrigation districts in the Deschutes Basin signed the HCP, which spelled out who could use the basin's water and when.

The plan called for reserving 36,000-acre feet of water to preserve habitat for the spotted frog and bull trout.

This growing season has been the worst water year in the history of the North Unit Irrigation District, which serves Jefferson County. The water spared for the frog could have given NUID farmers 80% more water than they had.

Symons and other irrigators think the document should be flexible for extreme circumstances like historic droughts.

Through her nonprofit, Perfect Balance, she's bringing in experienced legal minds to advise Central Oregon irrigators.

— Karen Budd-Falen worked on the Endangered Species Act for President Donald Trump.

— Gary Baise is a litigation expert in agricultural and environmental issues.

— Aubrey Bettencourt has served as deputy assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of Interior.

Originally, frustrated farmers talked about getting rid of the HCP altogether. "Emotions ran a little high," says Symons.

On closer examination, Symons says amending is a better option.

"There is a section in the HCP that talks about unforeseen circumstances," she says. "Getting rid of the HCP would be a bad idea."

Symons says the HCP provides irrigation districts much needed protection against lawsuits over endangered species.

North Unit managers are looking into long-term fixes, like piping lateral ditches and installing a $400 million dollar pumping station at Lake Billy Chinook.

"We need a short-term solution so we can all be around for the long-term solution," says Symons. "But the short-term solution is amending the HCP."

Irrigators like Symons also want to grab attention from legislators spending money on the nation's infrastructure.

"We need to start spending more grant money and government money on infrastructure to keep the food supply going," says Symons.

The meeting will be at the Deschutes County Fairgrounds in the South Sisters Building. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. The meeting begins at 7 p.m.


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