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Effort to share water between districts reveals obstacles irrigators pledge to tackle

Players in the Deschutes River Basin got creative with centuries-old water laws this year as two irrigation districts took a step toward sharing water. Patrons in the Central Oregon Irrigation District leased water from about 90 acres to North Unit Irrigation District, far short of the 1,200-acre limit COID set. That could mean up to 387 acre feet of additional water for North Unit, depending on how the drought limits water to COID. At first glance, that may not seem like a success — but that depends on how you measure success.

PMG PHOTO: PAT KRUIS - Agency Plains farmer Phil Fine has been a local leader in the effort to expand water sharing between the North Unit Irrigation District, where water is desperately needed, and the Central Oregon Irrigation District, where some patrons have water to spare.
"You've got to start somewhere," said North Unit farmer Phil Fine. "The participation wasn't as good as I'd hoped it would be, but you've got to realize they're in the same drought we are." Kate Fitzpatrick, with Deschutes River Conservancy, says the experiment broke new ground by proving the concept of water sharing.

"I'm really encouraged that we got a program in place. We've been working on this for a long time," said Fitzpatrick.

Oregon bases its water laws on a first come, first served basis; and a second principle: use it or lose it. Those concepts grow rigid with age. "We were here first. That's how the whole West was designed," said Fine. "You'd have to change the whole ideology." COID established its water rights in 1900, NUID not until 1913. Not all patrons in Deschutes County, which has grown more urban, need all their water. Most of the patrons in NUID farm for a living. They depend on water for their livelihood.

The water bank concept allows North Unit to pay COID patrons for their water. NUID pays $100 per acre to the patron, and an additional $25 to COID for administering the program. NUID receives the water during the irrigation season, and releases a quarter of that volume instream in the Upper Deschutes River the following winter.

PHOTO COURTESY NUID - A new piping project on the Powell Butte canal in the Central Oregon Irrigation District includes this spillway to the North Unit Irrigation District canal. COID patrons who are not served on this canal cannot lease their water to NUID patrons.

This year, 150 COID patrons offered to sell their water. Only 17 qualified.

-- Half didn't qualify because they get their water from the wrong canal, a canal that doesn't spill into North Unit's canal. -- Another group didn't qualify because of where they were on their lateral. Selling their water meant the district couldn't deliver to other users on their lateral.

-- Still another group couldn't lease their water because they hadn't met their required beneficial use. If patrons don't use their water for five years in a row, they can lose their water rights, unless they put that water to "beneficial use," which at this point means putting the water back in the natural river unless putting it on the their land.

Fine doesn't understand why selling the water to farmers doesn't count as beneficial use. "Which doesn't make any sense because it's going on ag land, which is what the water is supposed to be used for anyway," said Fine. Fitzpatrick agrees, sharing water with farmers meets the spirit of beneficial use along with putting water back instream. Fine, Fitzpatrick and others expect to take the issue to the Legislature in the fall.

The "all or nothing" requirement also posed a barrier to sharing water. COID patrons had to lease all their water off specific acres, or none of their water. They couldn't use some water and lease the rest. "I think it's the biggest pot of water available." Fitzpatrick believes far more COID patrons would be willing to lease part of their water if they could. She would like to fix that.

To do that, however, COID would have to be able to better measure the water, which means COID would have to upgrade its infrastructure. "My goal is to help them be more efficient," said Fine. "North Unit needs them because they have the water we need to satisfy the Habitat Conservation Plan flow requirements."

North Unit benefits from every drop of water COID conserves. NUID's support helps COID qualify for federal dollars to improve its infrastructure. The water bank is further evidence of the separate districts working together to manage the entire basin. "Our hope is that (the water bank) demonstrates to senior water rights holders that you can share your water and not put your water rights at risk," said Fitzpatrick. "You lose nothing, in fact you get compensated for it." "If anything it will make your water rights more valuable because now they're more flexible," said Fine. "They're not so rigid. Fitzpatrick and Fine are working to make the water bank project work better next year. COID and DRC plan to move up the enrollment date to August. Fitzpatrick hopes patrons who waited to see how the first year went will step in to participate next year.


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