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Anger simmers over sacrificing precious water for the spotted frog and bull trout

PIONEER FILE PHOTO - Farmers in Jefferson County vent about sacrificing their water for environmental concerns when they're already dealing with a cripling drought.

Local farmers opened up about their frustrations at the North Unit Irrigation District Town Hall Tuesday, Nov. 15.

This past year, water shortages generally limited growers to farming only one quarter of their ground. Ranchers and dairy farmers had to cull their herds. The historic drought gets most of the blame, but requirements of the court-order Habitat Conservation Plan only made matters worse for farmers.

"We're the ones losing water, losing our county," said Trish Backsen, who put her name on the ballot to serve on the NUID Board. "We're losing our farm ground."

JoHanna Symons also ran for a seat on the board. "The reason I'm such a fighter is because I have so much at stake. I don't want my livelihood to be in the palm of their hand."

Neither Backsen nor Symons won their bid to serve on the board, but they each drew about 200 votes, while calling for accountability from environmental concerns.

In January of 2021, Deschutes Basin irrigation districts signed a 30-year plan with the United States Department of Fish and Wildlife to change irrigation practices to restore aquatic habitat on the upper Deschutes river. The plan requires the district to release water to support habitat for the endangered spotted frog and bull trout, water farmers sorely needed during these dry years. Farmers want answers. They want to know whether the releases have helped the frog; whether their suffering has made any difference. The Town Hall discussion revealed the two competing views of the USDFW. Many farmers see environmental concerns as the opposition. The district managers and the board portray the agency as partners in implementing the HCP.

PMG PHOTO: PAT KRUIS - Farmers face off with Josh Bailey, general manager of the North Unit Irrigation District at a Town Hall meeting Nov. 15.

"The only reason we've gotten this far is because we've worked together," said NUID General Manager Josh Bailey.

The NUID board and management characterize the HCP as the plan that saved the district from a lawsuit that would shut irrigation off to the district completely.

According to the plan, over the course of 30 years, districts in the basin will have made changes to conserve enough water for both irrigation and aquatic habitat for endangered species.

Instead of immediately taking the maximum water away from irrigators, the court-ordered plan allows USDFW to release a smaller amount of water for the frog initially, increasing the amount of water released as the plan continues.

In drafting the plan, no one factored in the devastating impacts of the historic drought on both the frog and agriculture.

The area irrigation districts have poured millions of dollars into piping projects and invested in on-farm efficiencies to conserve water and make the water they draw from the Deschutes and Crooked rivers go further.

They've lobbied for and got drought relief for farmers, and are working on a plan to pump water from Lake Billy Chinook, a more reliable source of water even in drought years.

While the district's board and managers work to implement the plan, farmers still suffer.

"Bottom line you're getting paid," said Tonya Bender of NUID staff and managers. "We got our check cut in half." Several growers argue USDFW isn't holding up its side of the bargain.

"We've followed the rules," said farmer Sean Vibbert, "I haven't seen anybody else step up to the plate to do their part in this contract."

Vibbert and others said USDFW hasn't done enough to control the bull frog, a predator of the spotted frog. The bull frog is not native and propagates much faster than the spotted frog.

"Fish and Wildlife don't care about those bull frogs," said Richard Coleman. "If those bull frogs aren't taken away, you'll never save the spotted frog."

Farmers worry the sacrifices they're making now won't save the spotted frog.

"When we get to the end of the HCP and we've given them everything we're required," asked Jeris Clark, "will we survive?"

Many farmers and ranchers have expressed concern the HCP will put them out of business.

NUID maintains the unprecedented drought drives the majority of the water shortages, that the district is legally bound to follow HCP guidelines, and that the plan serves the district better than leaving compliance with the Endangered Species Act up to the Bureau of Reclamation.

The board and district managers have expressed in the past the importance that farmers show a unified front when seeking federal dollars for projects like the $200-400-million Lake Billy Chinook pumping station.

Farmers at the Town Hall wondered aloud whether both efforts couldn't happen at the same time: implementing the HCPD and holding others responsible for keeping their side of the bargain.

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