Conservationist urges irrigation districts to focus on water markets
by Michael Kohn | April 10, 2020 | Bend Bulletin
For decades, Rob Rastovich relied on flood irrigation to water the hay fields on his family-owned ranch outside Bend. The system was archaic and wasted large amounts of water, which ran off the edge of his 200-acre ranch.
Today his system is modernized — most of the ditches have been piped over the past decade and he’s upgraded to a more efficient wheel line sprinkler system. Just past his farm, the open canal that delivered water to the area has also been piped, reducing seepage into the rocky soil that is common in Central Oregon.
The Rastovich farm, which has been operating for more than a century, is saving more water than ever, thanks to pipes. Rastovich says the system upgrades have boosted his water savings by 30%.
“Water resources are scarce, and we live in the desert,” said Rastovich. “So getting more efficient at the ranch is our responsibility. We benefit from the river, but we also need to find ways to put water back into the river.”
But those same pipes designed to conserve water have also become a lightning rod for controversy, as some conservationists argue piping is too expensive, especially the multimillion-dollar projects that convert the open canals to pipes.
Instead of spending money on pricey canal-to-pipe projects, which can cost tens of millions of dollars, irrigation districts should be converting smaller ditches into pipes and investing more in creating a marketplace for conserving water, said Tod Heisler, Rivers Conservation Program Director for Central Oregon LandWatch.
Water marketing tools
In the world of water conservation, marketing tools can mean leasing water and transfers between districts and patrons. It may also include financial incentives given to users who conserve water. Water leasing allows a user to give up the use of water for a certain period, but not give up the right to the water.
A voluntary transfer of water between the irrigators could be part of the marketplace. Heisler wants to make it easier for hobby farmers to transfer some of their water to farms that raise crops for business.
Around 80% of patrons in the Central Oregon Irrigation District are hobby farmers — people who raise livestock for pleasure rather than for profit.
A greater focus on marketing tools will allow the districts to conserve more water at a faster rate, compared to piping alone, said Heisler.
“There’s no argument about what needs to be done for the river’s health, the question is, can the districts do it? Our assertion is that they have chosen the one approach which is the most expensive,” said Heisler.
How much water could be saved by building up a more robust marketplace for water? More than 130,000 acre-feet of water per year, said Heisler. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre to a depth of 1 foot.
For proof of the cost savings, Heisler points to the Upper Deschutes River Basin Study, published in 2019.
The study examined a number of water marketing options, including leasing water, permanent sales of water and incentives to lower water usage. The average cost of these market approaches is $400 per acre-foot of water compared to an average cost of $6,000 per acre-foot of water for piping large canals.
Fastest way to conserve water
Craig Horrell, manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District, said a better water market would help conserve water, but he also argues that because federal funds are available to pipe, that’s the fastest way to conserve water.
“It’s the quickest way to put water in the river and it’s where the grant money is coming from,” said Horrell.
Mike Britton, general manager for North Unit Irrigation District, said water marketing is still its infancy and marketing options won’t expand until more water becomes available. That would require more conservation.
“I know there are private individuals that market water, but in general as a basin, there isn’t a lot going on,” said Britton.
Why the need to conserve water at all? It’s not for the reasons you might expect, such as freshwater conservation for human consumption.
In the case of Central Oregon, water conservation is needed to restore damaged habitats for fish and the Oregon spotted frog, both of which have experienced large losses in recent decades.
Habitat Conservation Plan
In return for keeping more water in the Deschutes River to protect habitat for fish and frogs, local irrigation districts have applied to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for an incidental take permit, which will allow them to operate without the threat of litigation for the next 30 years. Their plan for conserving water is outlined in the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan.
Kimberley Priestley, a senior policy adviser for the Portland-based conservation group WaterWatch, said the draft habitat conservation plan will not add enough water fast enough to help wildlife.
“The Oregon spotted frog is on the brink of extinction. Without higher winter and lower summer flows in the Upper Deschutes than were offered in the draft HCP, then we will likely see the frog wink out,” she said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can either approve or deny the plan. Comments submitted during the open comment period are still under consideration, according to Bridget Moran, head of the Bend field office for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
While Horrell’s attention is on piping, he agrees that more water marketing initiatives with COID patrons are needed. A priority is to find ways to incentivize water users to conserve water and upgrade their water-delivery infrastructure, he said.
Beneficial use of water
COID works with landowners to lease water instream or transfer it to another property, said Horrell. Landowners who don’t use their water beneficially can have it confiscated.
“We confiscate water every year from people who aren’t applying it beneficially. We follow the state rules on beneficial use,” said Horrell.
One thing Horrell said he does not do is to tell landowners to waste their water.
“We don’t go in and tell people they have to water their rocks,” said Horrell. “We show them how to beneficially use their water and if they can’t we have options for them to be able to not use that water, ie. transferring instream, or transferring to another property.”
Ron Nelson, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, said the irrigation districts are trying to play ball and kick start water markets and on-farm improvements, but the piping projects are exhausting a lot of existing resources.
“They have a strong interest in (water marketing), but their focus on the big piping projects gobbles up a lot of their capacity,” said Nelson. “It’s moving in a positive direction, but it’s still in a shadow because the resources are being devoted to the piping projects.”
Rastovich, the rancher outside Bend, sees advantages in both piping and water markets, but said before a market for water can move ahead, the rules around water usage need to be improved to create more benefits for patrons. Rebates for water conservation would be a good start, he said.
And he condemns certain rules around water rights, which allow for water use to be taken away if landholders cease to use their allotments.
“I should be incentivized for conserving water, but I am not,” said Rastovich. “That is where conservation has to start.”