FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants
Mel Gurtov
Weaponizing Humanitarian Aid
Thomas Knapp
Lame Duck Shutdown Theater Time: Pride Goeth Before a Wall?
George Wuerthner
The Thrill Bike Threat to the Elkhorn Mountains
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Selfhood and Her Ability to Act in the Public Domain: Resilience of Nadia Murad
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
On the Killing of an Ash Tree
Graham Peebles
Britain’s Homeless Crisis
Louis Proyect
America: a Breeding Ground for Maladjustment
Steve Carlson
A Hell of a Time
Dan Corjescu
America and The Last Ship
Jeffrey St. Clair
Booked Up: the 25 Best Books of 2018
David Yearsley
Bikini by Rita, Voice by Anita
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail