Water war pits urban vs. rural
Water. It always has come down to water for agriculture. Farmers and ranchers have the scars from the wars that have raged over who has it, who wants it and who needs it.
When it comes to water I’ve seen drought years and flood years, wildfire years, global warming years and even salmon years. All of it has been distressing, but not nearly as much as what I’ve seen lately when it comes to water and agriculture. Or maybe I should say, what I don’t see when it comes to water and agriculture.
The future for agriculture rests on the availability of water. Plain and simple. Much has been written about the competition for water with the competing interests of farmers pitted against urbanites and food processors vying for water against other “sexier” industries. We’ve all seen it. What I have observed is that for most of this time there has at least been a case made in the public debate about water for the inherent, intrinsic value of agriculture to the community at large. Local officials and state decision makers usually can be counted on to understand the importance of agriculture and its role in the economy.
I may be missing something lately, but outside of these pages and other ag related media I have not seen agriculture being mentioned in the same breath as water. To be sure, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger laments the failing crops, farm auctions and impact on farmers during the current drought crisis in California, but where is the plan for the future? Where is the conversation about the need for more water for agriculture? The trend nowadays is in fact quite the opposite. Case in point, farmers in Klamath County, Ore., had to sue the federal government just to keep the water they already had the rights to.
In the state of Oregon we had the opportunity in 2007 to invest in the future of agriculture by adding 200,000 acres of irrigated land in the Columbia basin. The Oasis Project proposed to take an additional .1% (one-tenth of 1 percent) more water from the Columbia River for irrigation and recharging certain wellhead areas.
By the time it got whittled down to 5,000 acres, Gov. Ted Kulongoski was still going to veto it. Sure, there were environmental concerns and the salmon issues have federal regulatory implications that tie the state’s hands. But, the leadership at the top was not willing to open the discussion. The existing agreements between Oregon, Washington and Idaho also came into play, but on the surface it looks like Oregon is getting the short end of it on this one. When it comes to agriculture there doesn’t even seem to be the will to fight for it.
Agriculture is the most basic sector of our national and regional economies. As a sector that is still based on supply and demand, it can tell us a lot about the economy in general and is a good prognosticator. Agriculture as an indicator of economic health is like the canary in the mineshaft to me. It’s the first one to feel the downturn. With that in mind the health of the economy in our states is also dependent on a healthy agriculture. Future growth for the next generation will depend on it. It isn’t just a matter of whether individual farmers can be successful, but how our rural communities will fare as well.
In Oregon I realize that I have to be pragmatic when it comes to political decisions. Over half of the state’s population lives in the Portland metro area and that’s where the votes are. I also have to keep in mind that all those folks eat, most embrace the concept of locally grown food and certainly enjoy the scenery when they drive out into the rural areas. I also hope they are keeping track of where their food is really coming from these days. In the U.S. we just reached the point where 51 percent of our food is now imported. Comparing imported oil to food used to be a joke among the agricultural crowd, but it’s not so funny any more.
If we don’t take care of agriculture we will all feel it later, no matter where we live or what economic sector we’re in. It affects all of us and it will take all of us to find solutions.
Water is only one of the factors in agriculture’s future, but it may be the most important. We’ve got to do a better job getting that message out to decision makers and our urban friends.