On May 12 after a nearly 4 year battle, Fryeburg, Maine lost its appeal in the Maine Supreme Court to Nestle Waters North America, confirming the Maine Public Utility Commission’s initial approval of a 45 year contract for the bottled water giant to mine water from the small White Mountain community, despite overwhelming opposition among area residents.
On the other side of the country, Hood River County, Oregon, handily defeated Nestle’s proposal for a bottling plant. Here is the press release from David Delk, President of the Alliance for Democracy, Portland, OR and co-chair of the national Alliance for Democracy:
Oregon voters Tuesday in Hood River County delivered a stunning defeat to Nestle.
In the epic battle between Nestle and people around the world to protect their access to water, little Hood River County in Oregon just achieved a major and unique victory. And Alliance for Democracy was a part of that, having provided volunteers and financial support over the course of eight years.
Nestle had proposed building a bottled water plant in the Columbia River gouge town of Cascade Locks, using over 100 million gallons of publicly-owned water a year, and creating more than approximately 1.6 billion plastic water bottles each year. Cascade Locks, hoping to develop its tourist industry, would have suffered over 200 daily truck trips on their roads. Cascade Locks is located at the western edge of the nationally renowned and protected Columbia River Gouge. Opponents to Nestle’s plans also stressed the detrimental effects extracting this pure cold spring water would have on salmon, considered a bellwether species by Native Americans.
Nestle promised up to 50 low-tech jobs and an increase in the town’s tax base.
But a coalition of residents, farmers and Native Americans organized in opposition and today were successful in saying “No to Nestle, the water belongs to the people, not a water privateer.”
On an initiative question, Hood River county voters were asked to approve a novel measure to ban the commercial bottling and transport of water in quantities greater than 1000 gallons daily. And today they voted 69-31% to approve the initiative measure.
“Today victory at the ballot shows that when the people organize to stop corporate domination, we can win,” said David Delk, President of the Alliance for Democracy, Portland, OR and co-chair of the national Alliance for Democracy.
Development in western Oregon and southwest Washington has largely swapped forests for homes, driving down water quality and quickly killing off some species of mayflies and other sensitive insects that rely on relatively pristine streams, a new study from the U.S. Geological Survey finds.
USGS researchers examined nine broad urban regions across the United States for their study, released today. In the Northwest, they tapped into 28 measuring stations from Cottage Grove, south of Eugene, to Battle Ground, north of Vancouver, covering the Willamette Valley and the Portland region.
Forests start off with a greater diversity of species and better water quality than agricultural lands, said USGS scientist and study co-author James F. Coles. So regions that focus development on former forest land, including western Oregon, saw the sharpest quality declines, Coles said.
Paving over forestland denudes streamsides and increases runoff from storms. More rainwater gushes into streams, carrying pesticides, fertilizer and sediment and increasing water temperatures, all threats to aquatic life.
“It’s not one thing or the other,” Coles said. “It’s temperature, flashing of streams and washing off of contaminants.”
The Oregon and Massachusetts study areas saw the biggest decline in “sensitive invertebrate species,” the study found, including mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies, insects familiar to fishermen and long used as indicators of stream health. They decline sharply even in the initial stages of urban development, the researchers said.
The study highlights the need for forest conservation, the researchers said. Other solutions, many being pursued in the Northwest, include planting trees, installing pervious pavement and increasing buffer zones around streams.
Algae turn the Columbia River at the Astoria-Megler Bridge crimson in late summer in 2008. Scientists from Oregon Health & Sciences University, Oregon State University and the University of Washington are studying the algae, trying to understand why they bloom and how they function in the ecosystem. Alex Derr/Center for Coastal Margin Observation & Prediction Scientists study red algae in Columbia Rivergallery (11 photos)
ASTORIA — They appear suddenly in mid- to late summer, flushed by tides into the mouth of the Columbia River. Soaking up the warm sun, they multiply like crazy. Sometimes crimson, sometimes the deep red of a hearty cabernet, they paint dramatic swirls of color in the estuary between Oregon and Washington.
No one knows exactly when these algae first swarmed into the waterway. But this year they appeared to be more abundant than ever, and they stuck around, showing up in early September and staying through last week.
The algae stun visitors, stymie fishermen and occasionally worry residents, who fear they’re creating a toxic red tide harmful to fish.
But for scientists trying to unravel their secrets, they’re an enigma. When did they first show up in force and why do they return annually? How can they survive the thrashing of ocean waters that sweep into the estuary? What eats them, if anything? What happens when they die? What role do they play in the coastal ecosystem?
What researchers do know is that these single-cell organisms are not toxic and may even be an environmental blessing, acting as a kind of counterweight to negative forces of climate change by spewing oxygen into depleted waters.
Against the braying of sea lions lounging on piers, the dark waters off Astoria glistened in the late morning sun on a recent Wednesday. Pelicans swooped for fish, and a lone seal bobbed in the currents as two scientists launched a torpedo-like device into the north channel of the Columbia.
The 4-foot-long black, white and yellow vehicle with an orange fin slipped into the water, whirred, then whizzed into the deep. Underwater, it searched a grid pattern marked by pinging beacons. The device amassed data on everything from currents, the temperature and salinity of the water to the concentration of oxygen and pigments. The data will help paint a picture of the density of the algae throughout the estuary.
Though the algae form thickets, they’re not easy to track. They dance vertically and swim rapidly. Never stationary, they form patches that hover and streak through the water.
“This is an extremely complex system that we’re trying to understand,” said Craig McNeil, senior oceanographer at the University of Washington and an investigator on the algae project.
By studying the algae, researchers eventually hope to gain a glimpse of how global warming might affect coastal waters so crucial to the food supply, livelihoods and recreation.
The algae — Mesodinium rubrum — are not a new phenomenon. They’ve been sighted off the coast of British Columbia, Chile, Peru, Britain and Denmark. But they’ve not drawn bundles of research dollars, partly because they’re not toxic and pose no obvious threat.
“Trying to get money to study them is not straightforward,” said Tawnya Peterson, a scientist with the Center for Coastal Margin Observation & Prediction, based at Oregon Health & Science University and including researchers from UW and Oregon State University.
Mostly they’ve been seen as a curiosity, though they could be much more than that.
Unlike other phytoplankton, they cannot absorb carbon dioxide or churn out oxygen on their own. They eat other algae and steal their pigments or chloroplasts, which are essential to photosynthesis.
“It’s kind of like farming,” Peterson said.
This mechanism allows them to multiply, or bloom, at an amazing rate. When they’re in full bloom, they infuse the water with dissolved oxygen that salmon, for example, need to survive.
They’re speed champions, traveling great distances by jumping through the water like aquatic fleas. They’re also an attractive species viewed through a microscope, according to Rachel Golda, a graduate student at OHSU who’s studying the algae under Peterson and another scientist at the center.
Not everyone shares Golda’s fascination. Ken Rieck, 75, has been fishing in the Columbia since 1968. He first noticed the red algae about a decade ago. He said the red water has made fishing more difficult.
“I hate it,” he said. “When you troll through it, you can’t catch any salmon.”
He steers around a bloom when he can. Divers inspecting the Astoria-Megler Bridge avoid the algae as well.
“We thought it was harmful, so we’ve been avoiding it,” said Rick Shorb, an underwater operations engineer for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “It just looks like blood in the water. It makes visibility so bad we can’t see anything.”
Surfers and kayakers have observed the bloom, and residents have talked about it. Spencer Gotter, head brewer at Fort George Brewery, decided to play homage to the algae with a special high-octane blend: Red Tide Imperial Ale. It was sold on tap this year next to Flanders Nut Red, Roscoe IPA, Quit Wit and other brews.
Packing a punch, it’s served in a brandy snifter to heighten its citrus aroma.
“It’s got an 8.5 percent alcohol content and it’s chock full of Centennial hops — they’re delicious,” said Gotter, who created the red tide ale last August.
The brew is a hit with customers, even if the algae blooms are not. Shannon Meeker, a server at the brewery, said some worry about eating oysters when the Columbia turns red.
“People do make a correlation between the red algae in the river and shellfish,” she said. “They think it’s a red tide.”
Most people associate red tides with fish kills in places like the Gulf of Mexico, where one species of algae releases toxins that paralyze the central nervous system of fish. Other algae have created dead zones off the coast of Oregon. When those algae die, they increase carbon dioxide levels and lower the amount of oxygen.
But Mesodinium rubrum — the algae staining the Columbia — have the opposite effect: They take in carbon dioxide and spew out oxygen.
Curtis Roegner, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the bloom appears to offset low oxygen levels in the Columbia caused by waters washed in from the ocean.
“When we have the bloom, it looks like it can ameliorate this effect,” Roegner said.
That’s good for harvests of fish and shellfish, which are threatened by reduced levels of oxygen. Those creatures are also threatened by ocean acidification associated with rising levels of carbon dioxide from global warming. Oyster larvae, for example, can’t grow shells in water with a low pH.
“It’s a huge worry,” said Golda, the graduate student. She’s working on a project looking at a possible link between the algae and ocean acidification. She suspects the algae thrive in more acidic water.
It could be years, even decades before scientists have a solid understanding of these simple yet perplexing organisms. Although they are not going to halt global warming, they may play a part on a micro scale, Golda said.
“It’s not necessarily going to turn the shellfish industry around,” Golda said, “but it’s a hope.”
PORTLAND, Ore.—Oregon has long avoided the use of rock salt for snow removal but now it plans a five-year pilot project to use salt strategically on two routes typically hard-hit by winter storms.The Oregonian reported Friday that ( http://is.gd/afSTbh) it obtained a state Transportation Department document that says the agency wants “another tool in the toolbox” to keep roads clear.
Transportation Department spokesman Dave Thompson acknowledges that rock salt is “stuff we said we wouldn’t use in the past.” However, he says occasional use would help make for “consistent highway conditions” between Oregon and neighboring states that use salt.
The plan calls for using solid rock salt on an 11-mile stretch of Interstate 5 where it crosses the Siskiyou Pass at the California border, and along 120 miles of U.S. Highway 95 between the Nevada and Idaho borders.
Thompson said there are no plans to use salt in the Portland area because of its corrosive effects on bridges.
Oregon Environmental Council clean water advocate Teresa Huntsinger said many other states are trying to reduce the use of road salt. Concerns include possible residue contamination of water supplies and damage to vegetation.
Still, with California, Nevada and Idaho using salt on roads during snowstorms, the contract can be dramatic: clear driving in those states, packed snow on the highway in Oregon, Thompson said. The need to chain
up vehicles in Oregon leads to traffic delays and, in some cases, crashes, he said.”We want to provide the safest possible roadway system,” says a seven-page, question and answer document outlining the plan. “These two pilot projects will help us determine if, in specific, limited situations, salt can help us do that.”
State transportation officials recognize the dangers posed by salting roads to remove snow. A separate “best practices” document, written by department engineers and downloaded from the Internet, calls salt, “the most mobile, the most corrosive and the most likely deicer chemical to negatively impact surface and groundwater resources.”
The plan did not go through the state Transportation Commission, which sets broad policy for the department, said Shelly Snow, an Oregon transportation spokeswoman.
“Our maintenance folks can make this kind of decision on their own,” Snow said. “They did in this case.”
Snow said department officials checked with the state Department of Environmental Quality and with the National Marine Fisheries Service, both of which approved the pilot project.
There’s still the question of explaining this to the public.
“We’re still trying to figure out how to word it,” Thompson said. “This is a major change.”
The commission voted 5-0 to reject the petition from Nina Bell, the environmental group’s director. Among other measures, Bell’s petition would have required significantly increased buffer zones for spraying certain pesticides near streams.
The petition focused on pesticides that the National Marine Fisheries Service has identified as harmful to fish and other aquatic life. The federal reviews indicate that some pesticides are harmful even when used according to label instructions approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, the petition notes.
Farm and forest groups opposed the petition, noting that pending lawsuits have challenged NMFS’ conclusions. Critics say NMFS’ assumptions about pesticide use don’t reflect what’s actually happening on the ground.
DEQ staff also opposed the petition, saying that it hopes to expand voluntary pesticide stewardship partnerships to address pesticide pollution in priority watersheds.
The National Academy of Sciences is reviewing the scientific methods used to assess pesticide risks, DEQ staff noted. EPA will use the academy’s conclusions, due in 2013, to decide how to implement NMFS recommendations for pesticide use.
Bell has filed numerous successful lawsuits on water pollution issues, including the suit that prompted Portland to clean up sewage overflows. After the vote, Bell said she plans no further action in the short term.
But pesticide rules are subject to challenge under the Endangered Species Act: “Eventually,” she said, “that’s certainly something that could come up.”
Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–October 16, 2012. The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) is looking to revamp the way it enforces the 1993 Agricultural Water Quality Management Act in order to decrease the amount of pesticides that end up in the state’s waterways from agricultural nonpoint source pollution. The new plan, which was unveiled last December, will work by taking a firmer approach than the current plan, which on sporadic complaints for enforcement and cooperative action by residents through soil and water conservation districts. While a new plan could benefit the health of Oregon residents and its waterways, it is in danger because politicians and some farmers believe it will be overly burdensome and increase costs.
Oregon is no stranger to problems with pesticide contamination of its water. The state of Oregon has a complex and diverse agricultural economy which ranges from forestry products to seed crops. Oregon also has thousands of miles of waterways. Roughly 15,000 miles of these waterways are listed as impaired, and nearly half of the 11,000-plus miles of waterways in Willamette River basin need more streamside plants, according to a 2009 state report. These plants help reduce the amount of run off by reducing the amount of pesticides that can reach water-ways. Zollner creek, which runs through the flatlands below Mt. Angel Abbey in the Willamette Valley, was found to be contaminated with pesticides, including the chemical diuron, which is harmful to fish and aquatic organisms. The stream has registered high levels of pesticides and fertilizers since the mid-1990s, and contamination levels detected in the Zollner and around Oregon are high enough to cause harm to aquatic life, including native salmon and steelhead.
ODA Director Katy Coba and her staff floated the new, firmer approach to water quality late last year: The state would target limited resources to the most polluted streams, ramp up education of landowners and accelerate restoration projects, tapping state and federal subsidies. Over time, trees, shrubs and grasses would shade and cool rivers and filter pesticide and fertilizer runoff, benefiting threatened salmon runs. Before-and-after water monitoring would confirm long-term results. As a last resort, ODA would pursue uncooperative landowners, starting with warnings, instead of relying on outside complaints for enforcement. The department unveiled the proposal in December before the state’s water quality committee, including an aerial photo of the threatened Zollner watershed.
This new plan is seen as an improvement from the old system, which relied on outside complaints and cooperative landowners for improvements, leaving gaps which threatened water quality. An example of the problems this faced was last year Marion County’s soil and water conservation district decided to upgrade water quality along Zollner Creek. Conservation districts are government entities that work with landowners and operators who are willing to help them manage and protect land and water resources on all public and private land. While notices went to 75 farmers and land owners only five responded. Two eventually agreed to soil testing, and “Because of a lack of access on private land and interest by landowners,” the district reported to the state in July, “Efforts would be better spent on other projects.” The patchwork of voluntary projects, and a dearth of river data from years past, make it tough to demonstrate the results that environmentalists, federal regulators – and judges – increasingly demand.
The movement to this new system will be politically challenging for ODA because some farmers and conservation districts see the new proposal as a sign of a more active and intrusive governmental agency. In a January letter, the Oregon Association of Conservation Districts warned that farmers and ranchers might believe districts “are conspiring with ODA to set them up” for water quality violations. ODA, with just six field staff in its water quality program for 38,000 farms needs the conservation districts, which it leans on heavily for information and ground work in order to be successful.
Farmers are also concerned. John Annen, whose family has grown hops for more than a century along Zollner Creek, stated “I’m all for the clean rivers and the fish and all that — they were here before we were…But I don’t want somebody out here telling us what to do.” Farmers were also worried about the cost of creating stronger buffer zones. Federal and state subsidies only cover three-quarters of buffer installation, and while rent payments are supposed to address lost land value, land can range up to $12,000 an acre in the area. However, without proper action, and no matter the cost, pesticide pollution in these streams will affect the health and environment of Oregon residents.
Legislators from both parties are watching ODA closely as the proposal moves forward. If they don’t like what they see, bills to restrict or expand ODA’s authority could pop up in the Legislature next year and the future of this program may be in jeopardy after the November 6th elections.
To eradicate pesticides runoff in our waterways and our environment Beyond Pesticides supports farms that work to transition to organic methods of production. Organic food contributes to better health through reduced pesticide exposure for all and increased nutritional quality. In order to understand the importance of eating organic food from the perspective of toxic pesticide contamination, we need to look at the whole picture —from the farmworkers who do the valuable work of growing food, to the waterways from which we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat. Organic food can feed us and keep us healthy without producing the toxic effects of chemical agriculture.
It is important to make your voice heard on organic standards. See Beyond Pesticides’ Keeping Organic Strong webpage for more information on the issues going on right now at the fall NOSB meeting. We will be updating this webpage with our perspectives,, so be sure to check back as new information is added.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
GRANTS PASS, Oregon (AP) — The state of Oregon has denied a water permit for an Australian mining company that wants to develop a gravel pit along a tributary of the Rogue River.
The Oregon Department of Water Resources said there is already too much water being taken out of Grave Creek, which flows into the Rogue at the start of the section that is one of Oregon’s most popular whitewater runs.
Water rights program manager Tim Wallin said Grave Creek ranks high on a list of waterways needing more water for salmon, and unless Havilah Resources LLC can secure some other water right to put back in the river, it cannot take out what it needs for mining.
A local representative of Havilah did not immediately return a telephone call for comment.
Conservation groups that had opposed the project praised the decision.
“We commend the Water Resources Department for standing up for one of Oregon’s most special places,” Kimberley Priestley, senior policy analyst for WaterWatch, said in a statement.
The proposed gravel pit would excavate 126 acres (51 hectares) about 12 miles (19 kilometers) upstream of the mouth of Grave Creek, in an area mined heavily for gold since the Gold Rush era.
Havilah proposed drilling 11 wells and pumping 8.5 cubic feet (0.24 cubic meters) per second of the groundwater that feeds the creek. Grave Creek runs from a high of 120 cubic feet (3.4 cubic meters) per second in February to a low of 3.6 cubic feet (0.1 cubic meters) per second in September. After being used in mining operations, water would go through a filtration process and return to the creek.
The water already is too warm to meet state standards for salmon, and withdrawing more water would make things worse, said Wallin. Pumping groundwater would deny water to the creek. The mine would also reduce water flowing downstream to the popular whitewater section of the Rogue.
Havilah has argued in its application that the project would put more water into the creek, and water going into the creek would be carefully filtered
The application denied Oct. 11 was for a temporary permit to allow operations to start prior to securing a permanent permit, Wallin said. The decision on the permanent permit is still pending, but denial of the temporary permit does not bode well for it, he said.
We should be encouraging the youth in our society to do exactly what Robyn is doing — engaging in local politics, acting to protect the environment and questioning the world around her.
In the last year, municipalities across Ontario and the rest of the country have begun taking a much-needed stand to protect local water sources. Since World Water Day in 2011, nine municipalities across Canada have become Blue Communities with many well on their way.
Blue Communities are municipalities that adopt a water commons framework by: banning the sale of bottled water in public facilities and at municipal events, recognizing water as a human right, and promoting publicly financed, owned and operated water and waste-water services.
The success of the Blue Communities project in Ontario can be mainly attributed to Robyn Hamlyn who has met with 18 mayors and councillors. She talks about the environmental impacts of bottled water, the preposterous amount of profit bottled water companies make off communities’ lakes and streams and the stricter standards with which tap water is regulated. People who hear Hamlyn speak are captivated by her charm, passion and foresight to think long term about our water sources. And the incredible part of this success story is that Hamlyn is only 13 years old .
Her success has not only caught the attention of mayors, city councillors, environmentalists and media but it has also caught the attention of industry and organizations that believe water should be sold for profit. Hamlyn’s determination and effectiveness has provoked responses from Nestlé and Enviroment Probe, an organization that promotes the sale of water as a commodity.
John Challinor, Director of Corporate Affairs for Nestlé, has written letters to local newspapers saying there are other initiatives that the 13-year-old and others “can and should focus on to help preserve, protect and strengthen our water systems that are more effective than targeting bottled water.” More recently, Essie Solomon, an intern for Environment Probe , wrote an article in the Financial Post , chiding municipalities for taking “their advice from a 13-year-old.” It was shocking to read Environment Probe’s attack on Hamlyn who has been volunteering her free time to meet with municipal councils across Ontario to talk about the impact of bottled water on current water sources, climate change and social justice.
We should be encouraging the youth in our society to do exactly what Robyn is doing — engaging in local politics, acting to protect the environment and questioning the world around her. Solomon, whose article is condescendingly titled ” Don’t bottle 13-year-old’s water wisdom ,” would do well to pay attention to Hamlyn’s work rather than toe the line of an organization that promotes the sale of water for profit.
It’s also insulting to mayors and councillors to imply they do not examine critically the information presented to them. Not only is Hamlyn dispelling important myths about bottled water but she is also raising important issues that Canada is facing.
We believe municipal governments and other public bodies should not spend public funds providing bottled water at meetings or events, when a cheaper and more sustainable public alternative is readily available on tap. It simply doesn’t make financial or environmental sense.
Municipalities are at a crossroads and face pressing infrastructure needs in the wake of budget cuts and conditional funding from the Harper government. The Harper government is targeting water and wastewater services for privatization. PPP Canada explicitly promotes privatization of public services by only allocating the $1.2 billion under the P3 Canada Fund to municipalities that let corporations deliver water and wastewater, transportation and communications services on a for-profit basis.
The Harper government has shut down public debate on many critical water issues and amended environmental legislation that will reverberate for generations to come. So we are heartened to see municipalities take on critical water issues and provide forums for much needed debate and it is in them that we place our hope.
The Blue Communities Project is a joint initiative of the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). This project builds on a decade of Water Watch work in coalition with many other groups to protect public water services and challenge the bottled water industry. Click here to learn more about the Blue Communities Project.
BUTTER CREEK — The crick, as it’s called, tumbles out of the Blue Mountains, carrying snowmelt and spring rain to the Umatilla River. Water is scarce here, eight to 12 inches of precipitation annually on the flats, but Butter Creek grows enough in its 57 mile run to become a rushing stream for a couple months a year. By high summer it is bone dry, a channeled low spot amid the sage.Early farmers claimed water rights and built seasonal dams to flood and saturate the rich bottom ground for the dry months. Later farmers built canals, tapped the Umatilla River, sank wells and pumped irrigation water, a practice that spread through the Umatilla Basin.
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.”
Fill it upJ.R. Cook, director of the Umatilla Basin Water Commission, leads the way to a shallow, 5-acre depression scooped from the sand and sage. Protruding from the center is the lip of a 18-foot diameter steel pipe, set vertically like the drain in a bathtub. This is the first test of artificially recharging the alluvial aquifer with Columbia River water.Its homemade look belies the serious nature of the question.Can the basin store some of the Columbia’s high winter flow and pump it back out during summer?
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.
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.
Opponents of a plan to add fluoride to the water supply in Portland filed petitions that could put the issue to a vote. The plan was passed by the City Council last month, set to take effect in 2014, but foes said the idea was rushed and that concerns about fluoride in dental decay prevention are unresolved. A group collecting petitions, Clean Water Portland, said that more than 41,000 signatures were submitted, more than twice the number needed to put the matter on the ballot.