Sustainable Business Oregon: Balance between farms and fish sought in Oregon water accord
Author: Lee van der Voo
Posted: August 14, 2012

Read the original article in Sustainable Business Oregon here.

Gov. John Kitzhaber has asked stakeholders in the Umatilla Basin to hammer out a plan to combat water shortages in the region, with preliminary findings due by December.

The group is working through the Oregon Solutions process at Portland State University. If successful, their work could realize significant gains for business through water storage, but must first address water needs for fish and other conservation causes and honor an 1855 treaty with tribes.

The group — which includes representation from tribes, state and federal agencies and farmers, plus nonprofit groups, electricity generators and the Port of Morrow — will be considering emerging possibilities for water storage in eastern Oregon by pairing with the Washington Department of Ecology’s Office of Columbia River. The office recently completed an appraisal of water storage options in Washington and will consider possible partnerships and investments.

Water storage would allow irrigation needs to be met with river water withdrawn during the off-season when flows are high.

“I understand that the Governor wants to know by December, at least, whether we have anything that we can work toward now, especially if it might involve any review by the Legislature or anything that might impact the budget for the state,” said Dennis Doherty, a Umatilla County Commissioner and chair of the Umatilla Basin Commission. Doherty is a co-convener of the Oregon Solutions process with Kitzhaber’s Natural Resource Advisor Richard Whitman.

Kitzhaber told the East Oregonian, “The short term strategy is to build consensus around two or three ideas that can get water, additional water, within the next two or three years, probably looking at water that is already being stored in Washington … and then hopefully build on that success to build a much longer term strategy with Washington and the Bureau of Reclamation to really look at some significant increases in storage capacity regionally.”

He said both states could combine delegations to get federal support for projects while Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is a senior member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources.

The success of the strategy depends on whether there are areas where water can be withdrawn and impounded during the winter without creating conflicts for fish and power generation, Kitzhaber said. He added success also depends on whether there are sufficient geologic opportunities in the area.

The Umatilla Basin supports significant food production, with area crops in Umatilla and Morrow counties ranging from flowers to potatoes and onions, carrots to corn and watermelon. The area is heavily dependant on groundwater, however, though the water table has been declining since at least 1958.

The Umatilla Basin Project, authorized by Congress in 1988, allows irrigators to exchange Umatilla River water for Columbia River water, but the area still has significantly more irrigable land than can be watered. The Umatilla Basin Aquifer Recovery Project, which is underway and will capture and store water from the Columbia River in winter for spring and summer use, is expected to relieve some water problems but not all.

The goal of the Oregon Solutions effort — called the Columbia River-Umatilla Solutions Taskforce, or CRUST for short —is to minimize further decline in the water table and use available Columbia River water to help meet demand and restore stream flow to the Umatilla River. The economic benefits of restoring 100,000 acre-feet of supply to the Umatilla Basin have been estimated to be between $116 million and $144 million in increased business activity, up to 2,074 jobs and $72 million in increased labor income, and as much as $5 million in added tax revenue to the state.

But environmental concerns are also at issue. Solutions partners will also be looking to improve groundwater quality, aid recovery of basalt and alluvial aquifers in Morrow and Umatilla Counties, and improve ecosystem health in the watershed. Early materials from CRUST envision that water storage could help meet and exceed environmental incomes and also broaden possibilities for crop production and other uses.

Steve Greenwood, project manager of CRUST, said the Umatilla Basin is already somewhat renowned for its conservation practices through applied irrigation technology and science, but that a commitment from stakeholders to go further appeared obvious from first meetings.

“One of the things that we heard from people around the table was a willingness and a commitment to try to seek solutions that are mutually satisfactory to, if you will, the conservation community as well as the business community, and a pretty strong commitment toward making sure that everybody is made whole in this process. And that was gratifying. And encouraging,” he said. “This is going to be hard work. It’s going to be difficult. But probably the majority of the effort, if we’re going to have mutual gain, is taking water from the Columbia when the fish don’t need it and storing it for use when the fish do need it and irrigators also need it.”