Water is a Privilege Not a Right: Bleeding the Deschutes River

Dip-netting for salmon from tribal fishing platforms, Deschutes River. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The Deschutes River was once one of the gems of the West. Due to numerous springs, its flow was nearly constant throughout the year. Clean and cold, it supported huge numbers of native trout, and other associated wildlife like the river otter, mink, bald eagles, and Oregon spotted frog.

Sadly, the river has been degraded by water removal, primarily for agricultural irrigation. The Deschutes River flow regimes are severely compromised, and its water is polluted by excessive sedimentation.

Currently, plans are being developed to “restore” the river. Most of these strategies call for spending up to a billion dollars of taxpayer funds to enhance the efficiency of agricultural irrigation. These irrigation modifications include piping open irrigation canals, improving sprinkler systems, and other changes that may reduce water losses.

Many so-called “conservation groups” support these halfway measures.  The theory is that the “saved” water will ultimately wind up back in the river. These groups appear to be agricultural support groups more than river advocates.

Here’s the background that these conservation organizations are not telling you.

First, all water in Oregon’s river is owned by the people of Oregon. According to the Oregon Supreme Court, the state must defend the interests of Oregon citizens and protect the water quality, fisheries, aquatic ecosystems, and recreation. Water can only be removed (for things like irrigation) if it does not compromise the public’s interest in the waterway.

Obviously, given the severe degradation of the Deschutes, the use of the water for irrigation is violating the public’s trust and interest.

Second, those removing the water for irrigation do not pay a cent for this water. In the arid desert, water is precious, but we allow irrigators to appropriate up to 95% of the Deschutes flow for private profit.

Third, don’t be fooled by comments about supporting “local” food production. The bulk of all water used for irrigation in the Deschutes Basin grows hay and alfalfa. Much of this forage is exported outside of the basin—some even going to China. So we are in effect, shipping the valuable Deschutes River overseas.

Even the non-hay crops like carrot seeds, and other specialty crops, are mostly exported. Nearly all of these crops can be grown elsewhere without irrigation, and without having to drain our river for the private profit of a few Ag producers.

Fourth, even if a significant amount of water can be returned to the river—an unproven assumption—we still get all the negatives of modern Ag, which includes incredible contamination of the river by run-off from fertilizers, pesticides, and thermal pollution.

Firth, most of the proposals call for a lengthy implementation period. We have to wait several decades to get any significant amounts of water restoration—if it occurs at all.

There are several solutions that none of these so-called “conservation groups discuss.

First, we could challenge the very notion that Ag has a “right” to “take” our water from our river. “Water rights” are a “property interest” but that is not ownership. We, the public, own the water. Removing water is a “privilege.”

Rather give away our valuable water, we could begin to charge for the removal of our water. Even a small fee for every gallon taken from the river would likely precipitate significant water conservation, thus in effect, result in more water in the river.

If we are going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds, instead of subsidizing the private profits of ranchers and farmers by enhancing the value of their lands, we could  eliminate farming/ranching in the Deschutes Basin. We do this with a “buyout” program.

Using public funds, we could purchase irrigated farmland, retire the lands from all Ag (and restore it for wildlife and public use), and allot any “saved” water to the river. By eliminating Ag, we would not only get more water in our river but fewer pesticides, fertilizers, and other pollution.

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