Kitzhaber, farmers, environmentalists sign deal to add more water for Umatilla Basin irrigation

Kitzhaber, farmers, environmentalists sign deal to add more water for Umatilla Basin irrigation
By Scott Learn
The Oregonian

February 15, 2013

Gov. John Kitzhaber and a task force of farmers, environmentalists and government regulators agreed Friday to move forward on a short-list of projects that could provide more irrigation water for the water-short Umatilla Basin.

Their joint declaration, signed Friday morning, includes water storage projects that could tap more Columbia River water in the winter without harming runs of wild salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The basin’s water woes have sparked battles in past Legislatures, pitting environmentalists against farmers. Kitzhaber set up the 20-member “solutions taskforce” in April in hopes they could forge a compromise.

All the projects would take more money and time, in some cases a lot more. But Kitzhaber and group members said their “declaration of cooperation” is a milestone.

Farmers in the Eastern Oregon basin, which includes some of Oregon’s most productive agricultural land, have been seeking additional water for more than 20 years with little success.

Heavy irrigation dropped basin aquifers by up to 500 feet in a matter of decades, among the steepest declines worldwide. A carbon-dating study showed wells had reached water that had been underground for 27,250 years.

The new agreement pledges to pursue projects that benefit both farmers and salmon, including conservation projects that could increase Columbia River and tributary flows in summer months.

The trick is finding projects that can limit the impact on the Columbia and its tributaries in the summer, when withdrawals could harm salmon by raising already high water temperatures and cutting the flows smolts need to migrate to the ocean.

Among the projects on the short-list:

  • Completing an aquifer storage project, which stores water underground for later use, that could add up to 25,000 acre-feet a year.
  • Studying a dam and storage in the basin’s Juniper Canyon, which could add 50,000 acre-feet.
  • Exploring joint investments with other states in large storage, defined as 1 million acre-feet. In 2006, the Washington Legislature established a $200 million Columbia River Basin Development Account to “aggressively” seek new water sources in Eastern Washington.
  • Kitzhaber’s proposed budget for 2013-15 adds a staff member in the Oregon Water Resources Department to support the task force recommendations; $500,000 to study new storage; and up to $400,000 to support water conservation investments.

The governor’s office predicts $3 million to $14 million in direct economic benefit for each 1,000 acres irrigated.