The Fight for Water

The Fight for Water

Oregon Business Magazine looks at current water issues and water politics in the Oregon Legislature

By Robin Doussard
Oregon Business Magazine
August 01, 2007

Can Oregon meet the demands of its farms, fish and people?

The battle lines over a controversial effort during this year’s Legislature to take more water from the Upper Columbia River were drawn early — and sharply.

A water bill dubbed “Oasis” was an aggressive gambit by Eastern Oregon farmers and businesses to pull more water from the Columbia during the summer crop-growing months, the same months when the state restricts water use because of the needs of migrating salmon.

Opponents called it a water grab and a direct assault on endangered species; supporters said it was a fair deal and good business. The governor said Oasis would create a water war and promised a veto. Oasis supporters threatened political payback. There was little common ground.

Oasis made it clear that the longstanding water conflicts in the Columbia Basin have not receded, and though it was launched from the east, it is endemic of battles being fought around the state where the interests of farms, fish, tribes, government, man and nature clash.

Whose way of life gets to survive? What parts of the state are allowed to thrive? Which businesses get to grow? Water is central to every question, but finding the answers is not easy in a state where water management is fractured and no one really knows how much water there is, how much is being used or how much will be needed in the future.


McNary Dam spans the Columbia River just north of Hermiston. Like many Columbia dams, its summer flow levels set to help migrating salmon have embroiled irrigators, regulators and conservationists in controversy.

There have been various attempts over the years to develop a long-term statewide strategy for meeting water needs, but to date Oregon has no such plan (a dubious distinction it shares with Alaska as being the only two of 18 Western states without one). The various state, local and federal water programs are poorly coordinated; each city has its own water plan; and there is no statewide comprehensive plan for future sewer and water infrastructure needs. Daily, large amounts of water withdrawals go unmeasured and unregulated. And in two short decades, there will be almost 2 million more people living here.
The Oasis bill was one of hundreds considered this session and it ultimately failed. But it’s a water conflict the state will surely face again, ready or not.

“We’re sitting on a gold mine of natural resources in this state and it’s criminal,” says Rep. Mike Schaufler, a Happy Valley Democrat who supported the Oasis bill.

“Eventually the state will take advantage of that resource because the people will demand it.”

THE OASIS BILL WANTED 500,000 ACRE-FEET of water per year from the Upper Columbia (above Bonneville Dam), primarily for use during the summer growing months in northeast Oregon, including Umatilla and Morrow counties. This is arid land, with groundwater restrictions that have long chafed area farmers. Oasis wanted water for an additional 100,000 acres of irrigated crops to help boost economic growth and to provide water to help farmers whose use of groundwater has been curtailed.

The state has over the past decades designated chunks of those counties as critical groundwater areas (contentious enough to be ultimately upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court), limiting some wells and shutting off others. Some farms have lost their water completely. In a dry year like this one, water to those irrigators holding junior water rights were shut off as early as May.
The bill, backed by a lobbying effort funded by the Umatilla Electric Cooperative, counted among its supporters numerous business and agriculture organizations. They insisted 500,000 acre-feet was a modest request, that no one to their satisfaction had proven it would reduce river flow enough to hurt fish and that the massive Columbia had more than enough water to give. The governor, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, a host of environmental groups, commercial fishing concerns and down-stream legislators disagreed on all counts.

Each side accused the other of manipulating the science on salmon to support their views. “Nobody trusts nobody,” observed David Nelson, the Republican senator from Pendleton who introduced several of his own water bills and supported Oasis.

“Who holds the final say on the science? The fish do,” says an exasperated Rick George, a spokesman for the Umatilla tribes, which have worked for almost 30 years to restore salmon in the Umatilla River as part of a multi-agency collaborative program with area irrigators. “And they’re near extinction. We’re not going to argue the science anymore. When the fish are recovered, that’s when we can talk about freeing up new water.”

To farmers like Bob Hale, the vast Columbia was the obvious solution to their simmering frustrations with the groundwater restrictions. Hale is a third-generation Hermiston grower who is emblematic of area farmers who are angry that Washington uses a larger share of river water to irrigate a greater amount of farmland. Then last year, Washington rolled out its long-term water strategy that included $220 million for new conservation and storage projects.

It’s a shared river that their northern neighbors use to better advantage and it angers them.

“We’ve been trying to solve this my entire life,” says the equally exasperated 53-year-old Hale, who is president of River Point Farms, one of the largest onion growers and processors in the country. “To solve it, we need water from the Columbia.”

Sen. David Nelson, (R-Pendleton) says water issues in his region are a crisis: “We are not asking the tough questions in the Legislature.”

OASIS WAS NOT JUST A FAILED BILL that affected a small group of Eastern farmers. The fears, competing interests and unanswered questions evident in that debate are a mirror of water conflicts around the state.

Oregon suffers from inadequate water supplies, poor water quality and loss of wetlands, just to name a few of its environmental problems, according to a 2000 report from the Oregon Progress Board. The report noted that Oregon also ranked fifth in the nation in numbers of listed endangered fish species.

The state also faces huge issues outside its control that will strain its water supply even more. In the next few decades, almost 2 million new residents are expected in Oregon, and climate change could cut the region’s snow pack (which feeds the drinking water supply) in half and bring drier summers. Most of Oregon’s rivers already are overallocated, while groundwater supply is dropping throughout the state.

In its report, Water 2025: Preventing Crises and Conflict in the West, the U.S. Department of Interior says the demand for water in many basins in the West already exceeds the supply, even during normal water years: “Disputes over water and its use will continue to be a major issue in the West well into the 21st century.” It also tagged several Oregon “hot spots” ripe for conflict over water supply in the next 20 years: the Columbia River, and the Klamath, Rogue, Lower Willamette, Umatilla and Upper Deschutes basins.

“Water issues are a mess,” says Bill Bakke, executive director of the Native Fish Society. “Oregon looks good on paper, but it’s not so good looking on the ground.”

The Klamath Basin is a hot spot already ignited. It was the site of the biggest fish die-off in the history of the West because of an irrigation diversion, and it has taken an embattled five years to get close to a basin plan acceptable to tribes, fishermen, farmers and environmentalists (see related story, p. 26). Coastal cities swamped by growth now face water shortages every summer, and new developments are draining the groundwater supply in the Deschutes Basin. The Willamette River is so desperately polluted that the area around Portland is a federally designated superfund cleanup site.

“Irrigation districts in urbanizing areas are in conflict. Cities are anticipating the growth and seeking new water rights,” says Willie Tiffany, a senior adviser at the League of Oregon Cities. “It’s a very contentious world.”

Salmon are counted as part of the Umatilla tribes’  restoration of fish to the Umatilla River. The tribes opposed Oasis, saying it would harm recovery.Photo by Bryan Bloebaum.


“Oasis is a good example of where we are when we have no over-arching water context,” says Rick Bastasch, author of the Oregon Water Handbook. “A local need without a context is just one more conflict when there’s no strategy, no values, no framework for a decision.”

OASIS WANTED TO DIP ITS BUCKET into a complex river at a complex time.

The Columbia is one of the world’s largest hydroelectric systems, a major navigation artery, a flood control system and one big damn irrigation ditch. Its layers of management include two countries operating dams, the interstate Northwest Power Planning Council, Indian tribes with their own water plans and treaty rights that supersede state law, private claims, and three states all tapping its flow without coordinated water policies. The federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) frequently trumps them all.

Extensively controlled by man, the Columbia also struggles to be a natural habitat as the 11 mainstem dams and hundreds of dams on its tributaries have decimated its fish population, which has led to ESA listings of many of its species.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) 2003 update on the status of 26 ESA-listed species of salmon and steelhead in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California found that all but two were in danger of extinction or likely to become endangered. In the Upper Columbia, spring-run Chinook and steelhead are in danger of extinction. Seven species are listed in the Middle and Upper Columbia and the Snake River. “We are a long way from recovery,” says fisheries spokesman Brian Gorman.

In 1993, NMFS, which is charged with developing the salmon recovery plan, said the hydro system needed to provide another 2 million acre-feet of water to create higher flows to protect salmon during their migration. In response, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon enacted restrictions on new water uses, generally during critical salmon migration periods.

Since then, Oregon has required any new water rights out of the Upper Columbia issued between April 15 and Sept. 30 to be offset by a “bucket-for-bucket” mitigation. As a result, no new rights from the Columbia’s mainstem have been issued for Oregon farmers for years during the summer growing season. It is another yoke that has chafed Eastern farmers, one that state water officials admit limits the economic growth of the area, and helped spawn the Oasis bill.

With the House and Senate under his party’s control, Gov. Ted Kulongoski didn’t have to threaten veto very often this session, but when the Oasis bill passed the House in late June with the help of four Democrats joining 29 Republicans, he told the Senate president in no uncertain terms that he would veto it.

Though each state’s water restrictions are not formal agreements with one other, the governor said he would not allow the “shared bond of commitment” to be broken by the Oasis effort to draw new water during the restricted summer months. He also cited the state’s responsibility in the salmon recovery plan currently in development. This plan from NMFS has been rejected twice by U.S. District Court Judge James Redden as being soft on hydropower and hard on fish. The revised plan is due Oct. 31. Redden in years past has also ordered more spill over Snake and Columbia river dams to help salmon migration.

Echo farmer Kent Madison thinks that using more water from the Columbia for irrigation is imperative:  “The river is the key to Oregon’s economics.”Photo by Bryan Bloebaum.


The bill progressed further than previous similar efforts, but Senate president Peter Courtney blocked the bill from being heard and Oasis died.

John DiLorenzo, a lobbyist for Oasis, called the state’s handshake with Washington and Idaho “a bad deal for Oregon,” saying Washington takes about 32% of the total river withdrawals, Idaho 52% and “Oregon is left with only 8%.” Percentages vary, but it’s acknowledged that after the spigot was turned off, Oregon was left with less water than its neighbors.

It’s hard for Kent Madison, a third-generation farmer in Echo who is chair of the Umatilla County Critical Groundwater Task Force, to look at the Columbia and believe that it can’t give up another single drop of water. Madison is a farmer who is innovative with water reuse and “precision farming” that maximizes his water supply. He says supporting Oasis was a conscious choice that says using Columbia River water for growth has more advantages than leaving the water in the river for fish. “The river is the key to Oregon’s economics,” says Madison.

Oasis opponents also make economic arguments.

“The Columbia River’s water is protecting the fishing industry,” said Glenn Spain, with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, during one of the bill’s hearings. “The river provides a billion-dollar fishing industry. We are farmers — of the sea — just like them. But we need water in the river.”

“Healthy rivers are economic drivers, too,” says John DeVoe, executive director of river conservation group WaterWatch of Oregon, citing the substantial tourism and recreation industries built around rivers and streams throughout the state. DeVoe also points to cities such as Portland and Seattle as examples of growth not necessarily meaning more water. If conservation doesn’t do it?

“Nobody likes to say it,” DeVoe says, “but there are limits to what we can do.”


“We all won’t have as much water as we want,” says Michael Campana, director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State University. “We’re all in this together. We can’t blame the farmers or the cities or the fish people — we’re all to blame. If you want to see who the water problem is, go look in the mirror.”

WHOSE WAY OF LIFE GETS TO SURVIVE? What businesses get to grow? These conflicts defined the Oasis debate. Along with Oasis, two other water bills this session showed how contentious water management can be and how difficult it will be to negotiate the competing demands and philosophies around water.

There are about 250,000 wells in Oregon that are exempt from any approval process, including rural household wells that can pump up to 15,000 gallons per day and are growing at about 3,000 per year. A bill that sought to tighten unregulated exempt uses by requiring permits and registration fees was opposed by developers and the real estate industry, who argued that exempt water rights are vested property rights. It failed.

A second measure, opposed by farmers and ranchers, would have required all water users to measure and report their water uses, part of the Water Resources Commission strategy to increase water measurement in high-priority watersheds. Water for Life, an advocate group for agricultural water users, said the bill was “really about advancing the ulterior motives of certain special interests, who are seeking to put Oregon’s farmers out of business.” Critics say that because agricultural users hold 80% of the water rights, they are a formidable force against change, and the state’s policy has been “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to water measurement. That bill also failed.

But outside the glare of these two bills and the heat around Oasis, a modest first step was taken toward developing a long-term water strategy.

The Water Resources Department (WRD), the state agency responsible for managing Oregon’s water supply, received $750,000 to inventory possible water storage sites and conservation opportunities, and assess existing and future water needs.

WRD didn’t get its full $900,000 request (while $1 million went to furniture for the Legislature) but to a department that’s considered chronically under-funded, buffeted by competing demands and politics, and struggling just to keep up with the maintenance of water rights, it’s reason enough to celebrate.

“The exciting thing is that water has become an issue of such magnitude that we’ve been able to adopt the initiative,” says WRD director Phil Ward, seeing the glass half full. His department also got nine more staffers this year.

Mike Carrier, the governor’s natural resources policy director, says the WRD initiative is “not a silver bullet,” but an important first step in getting a handle on the state’s water needs.

Both Ward and Carrier say abundant winter water is the key to solving the state’s water needs. With the cost of off-stream storage facilities beyond the financial capacity of irrigation districts or even states, Carrier says they’ll look at partnering with Washington on its projects. (Washington’s long-term water plan hasn’t eliminated conflict. In June, it identified the lower Crab Creek Basin as the best site for constructing a dam and reservoir to create water storage on the Columbia. The Columbia Institute for Water Policy, a river watchdog group, criticized the plan, saying it would drown a wildlife refuge, local farms and steelhead habitat — essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul.)

There are many pressing water issues facing the state right now, and Carrier’s priority list is long: a new plan for the Columbia River that results in fish recovery, settling the Klamath River dams issue, and making sure the WRD takes the lead in statewide water issues and gets the resources to do it. Carrier says in the months and legislative sessions ahead, he plans to push for the measurement and exempt-use bills, along with reviving the failed attempt to put $5 million in lottery-backed bonds toward seeding water conservation and storage programs.

Also important, he says, will be the governor’s strategies for meeting water needs in the Columbia Basin, which includes working with the Umatilla groundwater task force, and the Umatilla Basin water exchange project. Phase III of the project calls for eliminating the last irrigation district use of the Umatilla River by exchanging it with Columbia River water. Federal funding to study that plan was approved this spring.

Despite Oregon’s fractured system, there have been successes such as the project in the Umatilla Basin that include WRD working with 10 cities to develop winter water storage. In Central Oregon, where rampant growth has severely strained groundwater supplies, an alliance of seven irrigation districts, six cities, three tribes and the Deschutes Resource Conservancy is establishing a water bank. A 2007 report by the Oregon Progress Board noted water quality and stream flows had improved since its assessment in 2000.

“Are we ready to meet all the challenges in the years ahead? No,” says Ward. “But we’ve begun to put ourselves in the position to be ready.”

“It’s only now that we are getting to a crisis stage that something is happening,” says Willie Tiffany.

Adds David Nelson: “This issue is not going away. We are not asking the tough questions in the Legislature.”

Not unlike a president who finds himself in a quagmire and hires a war czar, Mike Carrier joked during the session that he could use a water czar. After the session was over, there also was a bit of “bring it on.”

“We’ve been dealing with this issue in a very fragmented way,” he says. “I’m pleased there’s a growing sense of urgency, even with the tension that’s there. That’s the way you solve these problems, by being forced to solve them.”

Whose way of life will survive? What businesses and regions will grow? As the state approaches its sesquicentennial in 2009, how water issues are solved — or not — in the near future will write the story of Oregon’s farms, fish and cities for the next 150 years.

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