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Water Rights or Water Privileges?

Oregon Public Radio had a story about the Deschutes River and its water flow problems. The Deschutes River which historically had one of the most constant flows of any river in the United States due to the abundance of springs that form its headwaters. The annual difference in high and low flows was about 6 inches.

However, in an effort to irrigate the desert, the river has been captured by irrigators who have constructed reservoirs to store water in winter, which is released in high volume in the summer months. As a consequence, the once nearly even flow varies radically throughout the year.

In the fall when the gates are closed on reservoirs, the flows dwindle to the point where many fish are trapped in side channels and die. Riverbanks are also exposed to erosion, including the sedimentation in the river.

By contrast in summer, the irrigators use the river channel as an irrigation canal sending high volumes of water downstream. This further erodes the banks and also disrupts the aquatic ecosystems.

The drawdowns harm the river’s once famous fisheries, and all but lead to the extirpation of bull trout, and is also harmful to Oregon spotted frog which was recently listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The changes to the river also harm other businesses that have grown in Central Oregon like fly fishing, river floating and other recreation, not to mention, greatly changed the water quality in what was once one of the clearest and cleanest rivers in the West.

The OPB radio spot talked about “water rights” of the irrigators as if these meant that ranchers and farmers could dictate water use on the river. What was not mentioned is that ALL water in Oregon, as well as in other western states, is “owned” by the citizens of the state.

A water “right” is not a right to the water. All water is OWNED BY THE STATE’S CITIZENS.

A water right determines who gets the water and how much IF the owners of the water (i.e. you and me) decide to allow them to take the water.

Historically when many people in Oregon were dependent on Ag for their living no one questioned the idea of taking public water out of rivers for private use and profit. But today with many other people dependent on the water, this law doesn’t make sense.

However, the legal framework has not kept up with the changes in employment and expectations.

For instance, the Crooked River, a tributary of the Deschutes River, lost tens of thousands of trout when irrigators turned off flows from an upstream reservoir.

Prior to this event, the Crooked River was well-known as a major trout fishing destination with 8000 catchable trout per mile. After the drawdown, there were only 300 fish per mile. What happened? Did the irrigators pay any consequences? Nada.

Think how crazy this is. If you or I went fishing on the Crooked River and caught a few extra trout over the limit, we would be fined as poachers. But an irrigator can kill tens of thousands of the public’s wildlife with no consequences. And keep in mind that not only fish suffer, but all the other wildlife that depends on fish like osprey, bald eagles, otter, mink and so on.

Yet every fall when irrigators draw down the Deschutes what is the public response. Some conservation groups organize fish capture parties to find fish trapped in shrinking pools of water and put them back in the river.

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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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