Reaping the Whirlwind: Water War Along the California-Oregon Border



Posted: 06/19/2013 6:16 pm



Not clear how many HuffPosters go Biblical, but this one fits. With a fresh backdrop of unprecedented forest fires in the West, ferocious storms along the Eastern Seaboard (tornadoes attacking elsewhere), alternating drought and flood in the country’s interior wreaking havoc on the Mississippi and the next of many rounds on its way, you can almost hear the booming voice indicting us with a good, “they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”


But before anybody cranks up the old Climate Deny Machine to deconstruct whether 19 of 20 scientists can agree these weather events are related, let’s pivot to something that we definitively know humans made happen: a burgeoning water war along the Oregon-California border. As you read this, Oregon state employees are traveling across the Klamath Basin, shutting down the irrigation systems of ranchers and farmers to make sure that the Klamath Tribes get water they just found out they are legally entitled to.


This water war, pitting tribes and fish and wildlife against ranchers and farmers, is truly the result of human actions: in every sense, this environmental whirlwind was engineered by America legally, physically and economically. It is the obvious result of the application of a century-old water law that struggles to keep up with changing demands and modern priorities.


The law that allowed this war to start, called “Prior Appropriation,” was drawn up to encourage the settling of a dry land for a nation in a hurry. Hastened by gold, railroads and Manifest Destiny in 1800s, we needed a practical and simple way to know who could use scarce water resources when. Prior Appropriation grew out of a time and place where the West seemed boundless. A world where no one could predict that someday in the future, just about every drop of water would eventually be promised to someone before it reached the ocean. Prior appropriation did just that: it allocated “water rights” to all comers on a first come first serve basis. And it over-allocated many: across the Western United States, more people hold water rights “on paper” than there is actual water in streams in a given year.


Despite the lack of water accounting, for a long time the system worked. Settlement grew. Agriculture grew. The desert literally bloomed. What didn’t grow was the water budget. In fact, we have no more water on Earth today than we did when the planet opened for business. But in this country, our water is highly managed–it moves when and how we say it moves. The plumbing system of the American West has enough water in ditches, canals and reservoirs to put all of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and a chunk of Montana under a foot of water simultaneously.

Prior Appropriation creates clear winners and losers during times of water shortage. In dry years, those with older (aka “prior”) water rights can tell those with younger water rights to shut off. And from this long-standing interpretation of water law came the current conflict in the Klamath. Before this year, most of the water right owners in the Klamath didn’t know who had the prior rights and who had the less valuable junior rights. That is because the basin had not yet finalized their Water Rights in a process called “adjudication.”


The Klamath water rights were finalized barely a month ago and this process once-and-for all legally determined who gets what water in dry years. It was through this process that the Klamath Tribes were awarded water rights with priority dates that go back to “Time Immemorial.” That trumps every other water right holder’s date in the Klamath Basin. As coincidence would have it, this year is off to a dry start. The Klamath Tribes have made a call on their water, shutting off an untold number of ranchers and farmers downstream, to ensure that they can use their water for traditional needs of fishing, hunting, and agriculture.


This has predictably upset the apple cart (quasi-Biblical) for those farming in the basin and tensions are as high as they have been since agriculture was shut off to help endangered salmon in 2001. Right now, for safety in the basin, watermasters (the state of Oregon employees who have to shut off junior users) have taken to going out in teams of two and notifying the sheriffs’ office where they are headed. In a developed nation, that seems pretty wild.


To me, the real question has become: What events will jar us into realizing we need to shift our water management style? Our high capacity to ignore big, observable facts gives preference to how things used to be over how things ought to be–and that won’t work on the road ahead. The environmental issues we will face will be violent, fast and unpredictable. Several factors will move beyond our control. But our water future is something within our control, and we should solve for that.


A pathway exists to achieve more optimized use of water, but it will look different than how we have done it in the past. We need to accurately quantify the annual water budget, leaving enough for streams and ecosystems to function properly. Then we need to allow the trading of water among uses to allocate the water to the most productive uses and users.


This won’t be an easy transition. Some enviros will say that the market is no way to allocate a public resource like water; some ranchers and farmers will claim that family farms will be out-competed for water by bigger, more sophisticated agribusiness interests. Risks have to be managed, but such a sea-change in water management is not without successful precedent Instead of creating winners and losers according to whose great-great-great grandfather settled first, a system in Australia efficiently and fairly promotes economic and environmental gains, and ours should too. A race to produce more with less rather than a race to the bottom of the well is the better one to run.


Let The Public See Who’s Responsible For River Discharge

Oregonian Opinion Letter

April 6, 2013

By Travis Williams

Every day, millions of gallons of treated waste are pumped into our rivers and other waterways in Oregon from municipal treatment plants, industrial facilities and other sources. These discharges are allowed with permits issued under the federal Clean Water Act, and most often people meet the standards for cleanliness set within those permits. Most of these pipes are underwater, discreetly discharging treated waste unseen, but sometimes problems occur and visible pollution results along our rivers.

This was the case for me and many others last summer on the upper Willamette. While paddling a canoe with an Oregon Parks and Recreation ranger, we encountered a massive plume of wastewater that was darkening easily a third of the river’s width. This plume extended downstream about a half-mile. It smelled horrid and turned the Willamette’s normal light blue-green hue to nearly black.

Because I’ve worked on this river for 13 years, I knew that there was a nearby mill and that it was likely something was amiss with its discharge to the Willamette. As it turned out, I was correct. Yet if I hadn’t known about this discharge ahead of time, I would not have been able to see from the river that there was a permitted discharge; there was no contact information or company name posted anywhere nearby.

I found out that for weeks, river users had been trying to figure out what that plume was. Those paddling and fishing the river saw and smelled the plume, but there was no indication of where it was coming from or why it was occurring. There are many pipes in Oregon waters, most with no indication of where they are. In essence they remain hidden until something goes wrong. This should change. When problems occur, river users should have a direct, inexpensive and easy way to gain information from the river — in the form of a basic sign.

It makes sense to have a simple sign placed along the riverbank to indicate that there is a discharge point under the Clean Water Act. The sign should include the permit holder’s name and phone number, as well as contact information for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. At times the general public is the first to spot trouble in Oregon’s waterways, and it makes sense for river users to be able to get in touch with the permit holder.

Two states that are very different politically, New York and Tennessee, both require signs at such discharge points. The Oregon Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee recently considered a bill to require signage at such discharge points, but the opposition from both cities and industry was fierce. They seem to fear those who fish, boat and paddle knowing about these discharge points, and providing basic contact information.

It’s time to remedy this gap of knowledge about our public waters. Signage is effective, inexpensive and direct. The public right to know on our waterways is the right way to go.

Travis Williams is riverkeeper and executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper. He is author of the “Willamette River Field Guide.”


Roll on, Oregon House Republicans, roll on

By Steve Duin, The Oregonian
on February 20, 2013 at 2:00 PM, updated February 20, 2013 at 2:05 PM

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.