As the drought intensifies, an unusual water sharing agreement has emerged between four local irrigation districts.
A senior water rights holder is leaving water in the Deschutes River for junior water rights holders to use.
This is an unprecedented water sharing arrangement, especially considering the senior water rights holder in the basin doesn’t have enough water to make full deliveries to its patrons for the first time in more than a century.
The Central Oregon Irrigation District is leaving about 100 cubic feet per second of what it calls “operational water” in the Deschutes River, where the Arnold, Lone Pine and North Unit Irrigation districts can use it to help them through the drought.
“The water helps, but it’s not the silver bullet. I would say it’s a temporary Band Aid,” said Mike Britton, North Unit Irrigation District manager.
“The ‘share’ is trying to do the right thing by leaving their water in the system, and that allows us to move the water around a little different,” said Craig Horrell, Manager, COID manager. “That, in turn, lets us leave water out for North Unit, Arnold and Lone Pine to pick up.”
One hundred cubic feet per second of water may sound like a lot, but when spread out over 60,000 acres of parched farmland, Britton said it amounts to a proverbial drop in the bucket.
“What farmers are doing is fallowing ground and bunching water onto less acreage to ensure they can get a crop off a certain plot of land,” Britton said.
Sharing water is complicated.
As irrigation districts line and pipe leaky 100 year old canals, the saved water is returned to the Deschutes River where it benefits endangered frogs and fish.
But some of the conserved water can be shared, and this summer’s share is a preview of more sharing to come.
“For each of those conservation projects, North Unit is the recipient of the water,” Britton said. “So we’ll be purchasing the conserved water from COID as they do conservation projects in their district.”
“It’s progress but it’s very slow moving,” Britton said.
Simultaneously, Central Oregon Irrigation District is asking its patrons who don’t need water to leave it without losing their future water rights.
“What we are trying to do is move that water for people that need it for animals, that are growing a crop or for more days at the end of the season,” Horrell said. “That’s our plea to help. It is also going to help us with leaving more water in the river for next year.”
Horrell said the drought has forced irrigation districts into uncharted territory and new levels of cooperation.
The water sharing arrangement is based on last year’s early shutdown of the Central Oregon Irrigation District when it began piping canals near Smith Rock State Park and left water in the river for other districts to use.
This year’s water share is scheduled to last into September.