The basin blossomed with the combination of water, sunny days and a long growing season. Farmers say it’s the best place on the globe to grow irrigated vegetables, and it’s capable of producing even more food for a hungry world.
But it’s also a place where the finger-pointing over Oregon agriculture’s voracious water consumption hits home, and all sides recite the lessons of reckless water use from memory.
Heavy irrigation dropped 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.
Chinook and coho salmon runs in the Umatilla River were declared dead in 1926 and weren’t restored until 1994. Designation of four “critical groundwater” areas in the basin reduced irrigation rights basin-wide by 67 percent.
Farmers say the economic boom is stalled, and more water — say, 100,000 acre feet from the Columbia River — would allow them to grow more valuable crops. A 2006 study said recharging aquifers with river water would stimulate the basin’s economy by $344 million, create more than 2,000 jobs, increase labor income $72 million and add $5 million annually to state tax revenue.
Call it a push by Big Ag, but that’s not a pejorative out here. For all the glow of Willamette Valley farming, Umatilla and Morrow counties, 175 miles east of Portland, ranked second and third statewide in 2011 with $503 million and $477 million in gross farm and ranch sales, respectively. Agriculture provides more than 14,000 direct and secondary jobs in the basin, and its growers and food processors annually ship products worth more than $1 billion to domestic and international markets.
Umatilla basin farmers have been seeking additional water for more than 20 years. They believe technology and mitigation will allow them to increase their draw from the Columbia, even during spring and summer, without harm to endangered salmon.
They say they’ve learned from past mistakes of over-pumping.
“Sins of our fathers,” acknowledges Craig Reeder, chief operating and financial officer of a large farm along Butter Creek.
Key conservation groups believe he’s sincere, in part because Reeder articulates their views even as he hammers home his own. But they are wary of pumping Columbia River water and the impact on salmon. And they question essentially rewarding the industry that caused the problems. You can see the thought bubble: “These guys drained an aquifer to grow watermelons in the desert, and now they want more?”
Reeder and others understand the concern about an agricultural “water grab.” Agriculture is the state’s largest water user, taking about 85 percent of the water diverted for out-of-stream use.
Gov. John Kitzhaber wants the problem fixed, and designated the basin an “Oregon Solutions” project in April. Recommendations from a 20-member committee of farmers, environmentalists and government regulators are expected by December.
Carefully scripted winter withdrawals from the Columbia — when fish don’t need it and there’s plenty to generate power — might be acceptable to all sides. Farmers hope for a solution that applies only to the Umatilla Basin — one that isn’t opposed by environmentalists because they see it as a troublesome precedent for the rest of the state.
By all accounts, the parties work hard to understand each other.
“We’ve been able to stay at the table,” says Joe Whitworth, president of Portland’s Freshwater Trust. “It hasn’t been the typical greens vs. browns debate.”
Using some of a $2.5 million state grant, Cook’s commission extended a pipeline from a poplar tree farm and last year pumped 2,000 acre feet of Columbia River water and 16,000 acre feet of Umatilla River water to the infiltration test site. An acre foot of water covers an acre of land one-foot deep.
Over months, the water settled and seeped. Fifty-two wells traced its path.
Cook talks about the unknowns. “Storage capacity, where it goes and how long it takes to get there, and the carryover question: If I leave it in the ground one year, will it be there the next?”
The early indication? The test area might be able to store 25,000 acre feet annually, a quarter of what farmers hope to pull from the Columbia. Not a silver bullet, Cook says, but helpful in combination with other projects.
On Butter Creek, to the south, farmers Kent Madison and Mike McCarty hold state permits to do their own, smaller recharges. When the creek runs high, they divert limited amounts of water to a series of laser-leveled fields set at grade, so each is saturated in turn. At an underground collection point, they pump some for irrigation, and also inject water into the deeper basalt aquifer.
The basin’s projects are miniscule compared to Eastern Washington, where farmers also want more Columbia water. In 2006, the Washington Legislature established a $200 million Columbia River Basin Development Account to “aggressively” seek new water sources.
Derek Sandison, state Department of Ecology’s regional point man, says 40 projects are in various stages. On the back burner is a proposal to dam Crab Creek and pump Columbia River water there for storage. It could hold one- to three-million acre feet, but it would likely cost billions and take decades.
Sandison says Eastern Washington’s water shortages also stem from heavy irrigation and over-appropriation of water rights, followed by groundwater declines and a reduction of irrigation rights.
“They put their money where their mouth is,” says J.R. Cook, of the Umatilla Basin.
Wait and see
The first irrigation well in the Butter Creek area was dug in 1925. The first reports of water table decline came in 1958. By 1972 the area had 72 irrigation wells, from 665 to 1,500 feet deep. Butter Creek’s critical groundwater designation came in 1986.
The search for more water has been on ever since.
Oregon administrative rule prohibits direct irrigation with Columbia River from April 15 to Sept. 30. Withdrawal for storage is allowed, but basin farmers say the Columbia often is going full-bore past April, and they believe water can be safely diverted after the cutoff date.
The state Water Resources Department says that’s possible, but the idea needs study.
Taking more water in summer is a different story. “We’d have to be convinced,” says department engineer Barry Norris.
But change may be afoot. The Oregon Solutions has Gov. John Kitzhaber’s support and the attention of Sen. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. The Legislature’s involvement may not be necessary, Dingfelder says, if the basin solutions group reaches consensus.
“It’s premature to speculate how it will turn out,” she says.
Numerous complications exist. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla steadfastly pursue a settlement of their treaty rights to Umatilla River water. The impact of climate change on precipitation patterns is unknown.
Whitworth, of the Freshwater Trust, says the balance of fish and farm must be restored. Agriculture is “at once the most destructive and most necessary activity on the face of the earth,” he says.
But if technology and quantified conservation projects put the state in position to make tradeoffs and achieve environmental gain, “We’re all over this,” Whitworth says.
Craig Reeder calls himself a numbers guy, and he lays out the value of water with PowerPoint efficiency.
Dryland wheat, grown without irrigation, produces about $100 an acre, he says. Adding one acre-foot increases that to $500 an acre. A second foot allows the farmer to grow hay and some vegetables at $1,500 an acre.
A third acre-foot of water allows production of potatoes, onions and carrots, which gain value to $5,000 an acre or more with processing and international shipment.
Umatilla Basin farms play in the big leagues. Bud Rich Potato is the national supplier of Wendy’s foil-wrapped baked potatoes. Riverpoint Farms supplies the red onions for Subway sandwiches. JSH Farms produces mint flavoring and spices for Colgate, Wrigley, Proctor & Gamble and McCormick. Madison Farms will supply canola oil to Whole Foods. The bag of frozen corn at Safeway in Hermiston was grown and processed within a 20-minute drive.
Hale Farms on Butter Creek, where Reeder is chief operating and financial officer, grows potatoes that go from harvest to McDonald’s french fries in two hours.
Reeder grew up in the Willamette Valley but spent his summers on an uncle’s farm on the eastern edge of the Umatilla Basin. He studied agriculture business management and finance at Oregon State University. In addition to working for Hale Farms, he grows 1,000 acres of unirrigated wheat and is piecing together ownership of farmland that’s been in the family for five generations.
More water ensures the basin’s arc of prosperity and a future for his son, Reeder says.
He fervently believes more water can be drawn from the Columbia without harm. High-tech pump screens, designed by Hermiston’s IRZ Consulting, prevent fish kill, he says. Irrigators could help pay to repair the Wallowa Lake Dam, increasing storage for release to the Columbia in summer and offsetting some of what basin farmers would draw, he says. Today’s center-pivot irrigation systems are far more efficient than sprinklers used decades ago.
The basin’s economic opportunity doesn’t require drying up the Columbia, Reeder says.
“It’s not about the traditional ‘Give us this water and we’ll put people to work,'” he says. “That’s not the only argument. It won’t work politically and it won’t work socially.
“We get it, now.”