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Of Cows and the River Flowing

Fed by giant springs in many of its tributaries, historically the Deschutes River of Central Oregon had one of the most constant flows of any river in the West. Even in “flood” the Deschutes rarely rose more than a foot. Due to its cold, clear, and steady flow, the Deschutes was once one of the most famous fisheries in the United States.

But irrigation users have dramatically altered the river’s natural flow patterns. In winter, upstream dams turn off the river’s flow. In summer, high flows erode banks. All to the detriment of the river’s fish and other wildlife.

With the listing of the Oregon spotted frog, management of the river’s flow has come under scrutiny. Currently, the Deschutes is used little more than an extension of the irrigation district. Though there is increased interest in increasing efficiency of irrigation, few question the very idea that irrigators should have priority use of the river’s water. Even environmentalists give irrigators cover by promoting support for “local” agriculture.

When people hear that we are using water for local farmers, the average person thinks of rows of corn, lettuce or other crops you might see for sale at the local farmer’s market. But like most irrigation in the West, what farmers/ranchers grow with the scarce water is not food for humans, but food for cows.

But that fantasy since the bulk of our water is used to grow forage for cattle and other livestock.

For instance, in Deschutes County where Bend is located,  the state Dept of Agriculture says less than a 1000 acres is growing veggies, melon, potatoes and sweet potatoes which may require irrigation water. By contrast over, 20,000 acres is growing hay and alfalfa—both very water loving and water intensive crops.

In Crook County, slightly downstream from Bend, it is even more skewed with only 52 acres growing veggies and so forth, while nearly 40,000 acres is used for irrigated hay and alfalfa production.

Neither of these figures includes the acreage devoted to irrigated pasture that is common in the Deschutes River Basin.

Does it really make sense to use our precious water to grow hay in the desert to feed cows?

Maybe it made sense 100 years ago to give preference for water to Ag users, but leaving water in the Deschutes River for fish, spotted frogs, recreation and even saving endangered salmon and steelhead downstream is far more valuable than growing a water-loving crop like alfalfa just to waste growing cows.

Second, water in Oregon is held as a Public Trust by the state on behalf of all Oregonians.

In other words, we, the public, own the water in the Deschutes River, and We can decide how to use it. Indeed, one could argue the state is failing to protect the “Public Trust” by allowing our water to be wasted growing cattle food.

Irrigators so-called “water rights” does not confer a right to water. Rather it only refers to who gets to remove water from a stream—assuming the public—you and I decide we want to see it removed.

Recently I received a message from Senator Jeff Merkley proudly informing me that he has secured $150 million dollars for the “irrigation districts … to ramp up their important work in water conservation and fish and wildlife restoration, such as improving flows for the spotted frog in Central Oregon, and ensure that farmers and ranchers continue to have the water they need while making progress on environmental restoration at the same time.”

While I am sure the Senator means well, I question why I need to have my tax dollars spent improving the efficiency of private businesses.

Furthermore, if we really wanted to improve water conservation for the Deschutes River, a more intelligent expenditure of that money would be to buy out ranchers/farmers who are currently wasting our water growing hay, and permanently return that water to the river.

We, the public, would be far better off keeping water in our river for fish, wildlife, and recreation. In terms of simple economics, growing trout and salmon, and providing clean water in town as well as downstream, is a much more sensible option than maintaining an archaic industry barely functioning.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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