Roll on, Oregon House Republicans, roll on

Roll on, Oregon House Republicans, roll on
By Steve Duin, The Oregonian
February 20, 2013

Ten thousand jobs.

For more than a year, that’s been the pitch from Oregon House Republicans: Release a few drops from the mighty bucket of the Columbia River and — voila! — 10,000 jobs will magically rise from the fertile farmland of eastern Oregon.

By leveraging the state’s “abundant water resources,” Rep. Kevin Cameron and fellow Republicans argued in January 2012, Oregon could generate “$1.7 billion in personal income growth over five years and … $129 million in new tax revenue.”

And last month, Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, was still arguing that state economists and PolitiFact had verified those numbers.

Massive river! Ton o’ water! Piddling diversion! Jobs galore! What’s not to like?

Read — and dream — on.

This much is certainly true: Glorious farmland is available in Morrow and Umatilla counties. If 450,000 acre feet of water were also available to irrigate 150,000 acres, the Department of Agriculture confirms the flash flood would produce 6,250 direct ag jobs and 4,000 indirect ones.

An “acre foot” is the amount of water necessary to cover an acre at a depth of 12 inches.

Come springtime, the Columbia roars downstream at 400,000 cubic feet per second; that flow drops steadily through the irrigation season down to 100,000 cubic feet per second in the fall.

And that means, House Republicans insist, that we only need to divert an extra day’s worth of flow — less than 1 percent of the annual river volume — to create those 10,000 jobs.

As you ponder that “only,” let’s look at that water volume from a slightly different angle.

Thirteen federally listed species of salmon and steelhead migrate on the Columbia, and they migrate downstream during the summer months when the demand for irrigation peaks.

In 1992, Oregon’s Water Resources Commission adopted rules to protect flow targets for those listed fish, rules that virtually preclude new water diversions between April 15 and the end of September.
In the past 20 years, Water Resources has approved new water rights for winter diversions that total 39,000 acre feet.

That’s less than one-tenth the water the House GOP would divert for agricultural use each and every year.

“You might be able to get that water in the winter,” notes Barry Norris, an engineer at Water Resources, “but that’s not when you need it.” And the cost of storing that water until the irrigation season, and pumping the water in and out of the storage facility, would double or triple the price the farmers pay for it.

Since 2008, the Oregon Legislature has diverted just over $18 million for water storage projects. A water expert in Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office estimated that a storage project for 450,000 acre feet might run $1 billion.

Anything is possible for a Legislature foaming at the mouth over the Columbia River Crossing, but $1 billion for Umatilla County farmland ain’t gonna fly.

“The Columbia River is very carefully managed for navigation, flood control, power consumption, environmental concerns and irrigation,” Norris reminds us. That management plan is the product of dozens of disparate interest groups working for a great many years.

If the House GOP wants to torch that management plan, Norris adds, “The fisheries’ people don’t want to see that happen. Bonneville Power doesn’t want to see that happen.” Nor do the Native American tribes and the wildlife enthusiasts.

And if job creation trumps all? “We keep hearing you can apply water to the Umatilla region and grow jobs, said John DeVoe, the executive director at WaterWatch of Oregon.

“Well, you could apply the same water to the river and fish and also grow jobs, in recreation, commercial fishing, guide services and outdoor recreation.”

True. But it’s worse than that: Each time we remove water from the Columbia to generate jobs in Hermiston, we increase the pain and suffering of the economy downstream.

Are House Republicans deaf and blind to this complex balancing act, or to the more nuanced proposals of Kitzhaber’s Columbia River/Umatilla task force?

Of course not. They’re just betting you are.