by Les Zaitz
April 25, 2009
SALEM — Lobbyist Craig Campbell was chasing a favor when he phoned Gov. Ted Kulongoski in early 2007.
The eastern Oregon farming interests who hired Campbell wanted a private meeting with the governor.
Campbell once served on the governor’s personal staff and knew Kulongoski would take his call. He dialed the governor’s cell phone, and soon the executives and their high-powered lobbyists were face to face with Kulongoski.
Jamie Francis/The OregonianFarmers in the Hermiston area looked to the Columbia River when limits on groundwater pumping were imposed, but they quickly ran into opposition from fish advocates and tribes holding treaty rights.
They were after one thing: water.
The fact that water would trigger such an adroit use of political access underscores an issue sneaking up on most Oregonians.
In a state that boasts about webbed feet, access to water is increasingly contested. The state estimates that in the coming years, demand will grow by 1.2 million acre-feet; we use about 9 million acre-feet now. Whoever controls the limited supply will control new housing and industry and how farming expands.
Water is measured in acre-feet — the amount that covers an acre to a depth of 1 foot — and gallons. Oregonians use about 70 million gallons a day to drink, bathe and cook. Portland uses 136 gallons a day per person.
Every product made in the state, from canned peaches to silicon wafers, takes water. The state lights up on power generated thanks to water.
And now fish have arrived as a demanding customer. Powerful interests from federal judges to national environmental groups insist that more water be left in rivers for fish. That means less water for some at a time when people are demanding more.
There’s not much to divvy up.
In summer, every gallon of water in every stream is already claimed. Aquifers, vast underground reservoirs, are proving a less reliable source for wells, and no one’s sure how much water is there.
"Every time we turn on a pump, we mine a certain amount of water," said Todd Jarvis, associate director of Oregon State University’s Institute for Water and Watersheds.
Rationing is replacing Oregon’s use-all-you-want tradition. The state restricts well use in 14 areas in seemingly water-rich western Oregon. In one, the Victor Point zone east of Salem, all new groundwater pumping has been barred. Eastern Oregon has nine restricted areas.
The farm executives who met with Kulongoski two years ago know big money is at stake when the state cuts off water.
In the Umatilla Basin, farmers can grow about $150 worth of wheat on an acre of dry ground. If they can get an extra foot or two of irrigation water, they can switch to peas or potatoes or mint worth up to $3,500 an acre. Multiplied over thousands of acres in the basin, water can boost farm sales by millions.
"An extra foot of water is very, very valuable," said Chester "Chet" Prior, who owns Eagle Ranch near Echo.
That extra water has been harder to get since hydrologists concluded farmers were pumping too much out of the ground. The state overrode water rights dating back decades, ordering reduced pumping. South of Hermiston, farmers now get 10 percent of the groundwater they once were entitled to.
Oregon has a history of clashes between the haves and the have-nots.
"Water is up there with religion" in importance in settling the West, said John DeVoe. He leads the environmental group Oregon WaterWatch.
Klamath County remains a poster child for what happens in modern water wars. The fight between fish and farmers got national attention, prompting intervention by then-Vice President Dick Cheney. For safety, federal scientists removed government plates from their vehicles before driving into the Klamath Basin.
Water issues also emerged in central Oregon, where the Deschutes River was running far too low to properly support fish. The exploding growth in the area was pushing out farming, and new developments required more water.
A coalition formed that included environmentalists, Native tribes, farmers, irrigation districts and cities. They agreed on a plan to restore flows to the Deschutes while allowing development to continue.
Under the regional solution, now a national model, farmers sold off water rights and cities embarked on ambitious conservation programs that sent more water to the river. A "water bank" helped trade water, substituting irrigation water for underground water, and allowing more water to flow to the Deschutes.
The prized Deschutes flows more fully than it has in years.
"We’re not creating water. We’re moving water around," said Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes Water Alliance.
In the northeast corner of the state, public officials faced their own water challenges. Initially, Umatilla County authorities proposed a moratorium on new home wells. That would freeze development, but telling people they couldn’t have a well at home struck some as un-American.
"The guns started coming out. These were real fighting words," said Dennis Doherty, Umatilla County commissioner in Pendleton.
Anticipating a big crowd, the Umatilla County Planning Commission moved its hearing on the freeze into the National Guard Armory in Hermiston. More than 500 people showed up for the October 2003 session.
Facing withering opposition, the county retreated. Instead, county officials decided to more thoroughly identify the water problem — and then fix it.
An eclectic mix of local residents met as a task force month after month, learning about geology, hydrology and more.
Farmers watched the work with keen interest. The Umatilla Basin, stretching from the river plateaus at Boardman east to the rolling hills around Pendleton, provides some of the country’s most productive cropland. Sediment deposits over eons left a soil suitable for many crops. "Just add water," farmers say.
And they have, cultivating more than 200,000 acres with water drawn from the Columbia River and tributaries or from wells tapping the deep water trapped in layers of basalt. The agriculture industry in the area devised the pivot irrigation system that spits out water in carefully measured doses. Farmers in the Umatilla Basin are considered among the most water-efficient on the planet.
But signs emerged in the 1960s that irrigation wells were taking water out of the deep aquifers more quickly than nature could put it in. In 1991, the state had a line around 63,500 acres of farmland and ordered immediate reductions in pumping. Farmers had to find a way to replace nearly 70 percent of the 190,000 acre-feet they had a right to pump.
The county’s task force hoped to find a way to replace that water.
It was kept on task by Kent Madison, an innovative farmer from Echo. Madison’s operation was hurt when the state ordered well reductions. He was better off than some, though, because he had rights to tap the Columbia River, the last farmer in the area to get such a right before the state put that source off limits.
Madison was convinced the river could solve the basin’s water problems. He couldn’t imagine that taking a fraction of the daily flow would do any harm.
But fans of fish thought otherwise. Key federal agencies have long insisted the Columbia River couldn’t be touched from spring until fall, when fish were hatching and traveling. Another powerful force stood between Madison and the river — the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla.
The tribes also insisted no harm come to the river, where they hold historic treaty fishing rights. Most leaders in the region understood there never would be a water deal if the tribes weren’t part of it.
And those on the task force wouldn’t be hurried. They had to boost water supplies in a way that would sell politically in the basin — and in Salem. By all accounts, they surrendered personal ambitions for that grander goal.
"They were working together. They were doing the right thing for the right reason," said Doherty, the county commissioner.
The effort caught attention in Salem.
"It’s powerful when you have all these interests sitting together saying, ‘This is the direction we want to go,’" said Phil Ward, state Water Resources Department director.
The task force was struggling for solutions when a well-known utility executive asked for time on the agenda.
Steve Eldrige, general manager of the Umatilla Electric Cooperative, sat before the task force in January 2007.
Without warning, he laid out an elaborate and surprising plan to get more water.
Stunned task force members sensed trouble ahead. They were right.
— Les Zaitz; [email protected]