Crooked River Water: Public Right vs. Private Profits

An article in the November 9th Bend (Oregon) Bulletin reported that due to low water reserves, the Bureau of Reclamation that controls water release from Prineville Reservoir might limit flows in the Crooked River to preserve water for irrigators to the detriment of fish and the Crooked River’s aquatic ecosystem.

A number of other recent commentaries have championed Agriculture and their use of water for irrigation.

These articles fail to ask a fundamental question.

Why are irrigators allowed to dewater our rivers, destroy aquatic ecosystems and potentially kill thousands of fish with impunity?

If a fisherman were to keep one extra fish, he/she would be fined, but irrigators kill tens of thousands of fish and fish dependent wildlife from mink and otters to bald eagles and osprey) with no consequences?

In addition to the loss of fish and wildlife, irrigation withdrawals contribute to substantial water pollution including greater sedimentation in the river and higher water temperatures, not to mention significant channel modification and loss of riparian vegetation.  All of this without any legal consequences or even public condemnation.

To add insult to injury, Senator Merkley has obtained $30 million of our taxpayer money to pay for the piping of leaky Ag irrigation ditches that enhances the property values of irrigators and the irrigation district—at public expense to mitigate some of the irrigation impacts to the Deschutes River.

Such solutions are like suggesting that taxpayers should pay to install scrubbers on coal-fired power plants to reduce air pollution rather than having the people buying power from the utility pay for pollution reduction.

Just as the air is a public resource that no one owns, and thus no one has a “right” to pollute the air, our waterways are also public resources that no one owns. There is no such thing as a “water right” pollute and degrade our rivers.

Since 1869 the Oregon Supreme Court has recognized that water is a public resource.

In 1918, Oregon became one of the first states to recognize recreation as commerce protected under the public navigation easement.

A law review published in Environmental Review concluded: “Although the state can authorize private rights in those resources (water), all private rights are subject to the state’s sovereign ownership—a public easement—requiring the state to maintain these resources as trustee for the public.”

Translation– the state has a legal obligation to protect our rivers on behalf of all citizens for fisheries, recreation, and other values.

Though economics is not a legal criterion for protecting the public’s resources, keeping water in the river has a higher economic value to the region’s economy than using that water for irrigation.

AG interests continuously inflate their economic value in order to garner support for subsidies. But in reality, AG provides minimal economic benefit to our region. For instance, according to Headwaters Economics, all agriculture (and irrigated AG is a subset of this) contributed to only 1.2% of the non-governmental income of Deschutes County, while Travel and Tourism accounted for 21.7% of income.

This figure does not account for the income of 43.2% of people who do not depend on the local economy for their income but who live or have moved to Deschutes County attracted by the natural environment including outdoor recreation.

Because none of the proposed solutions ever consider eliminating irrigated agriculture, they can never indeed “fix” the problem. We will still have unnatural flows in our rivers and less than a healthy aquatic ecosystem.

In the end, we need to restart discussions from the perspective that restoring and maintaining healthy river ecosystems is a higher priority than the private use of our water to irrigate fields of hay or pasture. Not only is this a wise ecological and economical pathway, but it is also an ethical pathway into the future.


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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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