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Environment | Water

Watering The Oregon Desert

HERMISTON, Ore. — With its sandy soils and arid climate, Eastern Oregon’s Umatilla Basin boasts some of the most productive farmland in the world. From potatoes to onions, corn to peas, watermelons to blueberries, the region is an oasis of high-value crop production.

Just add water, and crops flourish here.

Water, however, is hard to come by.

More than 5 trillion gallons of Columbia River water rushes past Umatilla Basin farms each year on its way to the Pacific Ocean. Most of that never leaves the river. It is dedicated for endangered salmon runs and hydroelectric generation.

Groundwater is also largely off-limits to Umatilla Basin farmers. The basin has four of the state’s seven critical groundwater areas. Consequently, two-thirds of the roughly 190,500 acre-feet of groundwater rights held by Umatilla Basin farmers are no longer functional.

Typically, it takes 3 acre-feet of water — an acre-foot is enough water to cover 1 acre 1 foot deep — to irrigate 1 acre in the Umatilla Basin. Using those figures, more than 42,000 acres of potentially high-value cropland is left dry each year because of a groundwater shortage.

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In addition, a study by the Oregon Water Resources Department showed the Umatilla Basin contains another 200,000 nonirrigated acres that have promise as high-value farmland. The studies show the area is operating at a fraction of its economic potential.

“Without water, you move from a crop that is worth thousands of dollars an acre to a crop worth only hundreds an acre,” said Tyler Hansell, a Hermiston, Ore., farmer. Craig Reeder, farm manager for Hale Farms in Echo, Ore., equated each acre-foot of water to a $25,000 increase in value for farm production.

Symposium On Columbia Water

“Columbia River Water: How will it be allocated?” is the title of a symposium set for Tuesday, Jan. 29 at the Northwest Agricultural Show in Portland.

Watch or listen to the archived symposium here.

The symposium is sponsored by Capital Press, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and the Northwest Ag Show. It is scheduled for 1 to 3 pm at the Portland Expo Center, site of the ag show.

Panelists are Craig Reeder of Hale Farms, Paul Lumley of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Mary Lou Soscia of the Environmental Protection Agency and Ed Sheets, a consultant. Moderators for the event are Steve Forrester, president and CEO of the EO Media Group, and Cassandra Profita, OPB’s Ecotrope blogger.

Audio from the symposium will be streamed live at EarthFix. Those following the live feed can ask questions of the panelists through Twitter by using the hashtag #CRH2O.

Questions can be emailed to

“The higher value crop we raise, the more value we can add to it,” Reeder said. “Instead of just growing a commodity, like wheat, we can take raw product to a processing plant, put it in containers and ship it overseas.”

A 2006 study estimated that recharging the basin’s aquifers with an additional 100,000 acre-feet of water — enough to irrigate about 33,000 acres — would stimulate the basin’s economy by $344 million, create more than 2,000 jobs and add $5 million to annual state tax revenue.

Gaining that extra 100,000 acre-feet, however — a fraction of the water that flows past here every day in the Columbia River — has proven difficult. “My dad and his generation fought this battle,” said Hansell, 34. “Now it’s our issue.”

Many of the problems facing farmers in the basin today can be traced to their ancestors. Farmers started digging wells in the Umatilla Basin in the 1920s. By the 1970s, farmers had overused the water. A decade later, the state started cutting them off from their full allocation of groundwater.

Several efforts to tap the Columbia River for irrigation have surfaced in the Oregon Legislature in recent years, but all have been stifled, and the river remains off-limits to new summer water withdrawals.

One project endorsed

Only one Umatilla water project has been endorsed by lawmakers in recent years — the Umatilla aquifer recharge project — and, to date, no new irrigation supplies have been forthcoming from it. Still, environmental advocates, policy-makers and water users are encouraged by the project.

The project largely uses existing infrastructure, including pumps and irrigation canals, to divert water from the Columbia River in the fall, when river flow is high, to an infiltration site, where it seeps into an aquifer.

How the aquifer recharge plan would work. Image courtesy of J.R. Cook

If all goes as planned, the project could increase flows in the Umatilla River in the summer, benefiting fish as well as irrigators, according to J.R. Cook, executive director of the Umatilla Basin Water Commission. Cook tracks the movement of the water through more than 50 sensor wells.

However, the costs of diverting water to the infiltration site and then to farms where it can be used are steep, Cook said. But growers have said they are willing to pay high prices in the hopes a little water can make the difference in their ability to produce a high-value crop.

Ultimately, though, Cook said he needs to do more testing to determine what the water is worth, where it is going and how long it takes to get there after it seeps through the sandy soil. And, Cook said, the 25,000 acre-feet that he can provide are well short of what area farmers have requested.

A new hope

A recent development has renewed hope among farmers that more water could be coming to the region. Last year, Gov. John Kitzhaber designated efforts to develop water supplies in the Umatilla Basin an Oregon Solutions Project, or a governor’s priority. The governor subsequently created a taskforce to study the issue.

Called CRUST, for Columbia River-Umatilla Solutions Taskforce, the panel is expected in coming days to forward a list of projects it recommends the state consider advancing.

Among recommendations reportedly endorsed by the panel is one that calls for continued funding for the Umatilla Basin aquifer recharge project. The panel also is expected to recommend considering moving forward on a plan to repair the Wallowa Lake Dam and constructing a new storage reservoir in Juniper Canyon, which would create just under 50,000 acre-feet of storage. Other projects it reportedly endorses include leasing water from Washington to serve as a mitigation bank for new water rights in Oregon, and partnering with Washington, and possibly Idaho, on new water storage projects.

The Umatilla River.

The group is expected to release its final report after its last meeting, scheduled for Jan. 29.

Also, Gov. Kitzhaber in his proposed budget has recommended pumping $12 million in bond financing for water development into the Umatilla Basin. The basin, with its vast untapped economic potential and critical salmon habitat, represents a prime test case for determining how Oregon can advance farm productivity while protecting the environment, according to Richard Whitman, Kitzhaber’s natural resources policy director . “That is the model we are looking at for other parts of the state, as well,” Whitman said.

Joe Whitworth, president of the Freshwater Trust, also views the Umatilla Basin as a prime test site.

“I think the opportunity to get agriculture more profitable and provide some economic and environmental gain lives in the Umatilla,” Whitworth said.

The $12 million Kitzhaber wants lawmakers to provide in bond financing for the basin is part of $22 million he has proposed for statewide water development projects.

In total, Kitzhaber’s proposed water development funding package is only about 10 percent of the $200 million Washington recently allocated water development projects. However, Whitman said, it represents an important first step.

“Part of the message here is we need to do everything we can, not just those large-scale projects, but we really need to be doing a lot of small projects that we can bring to fruition in a shorter period of time,” Whitman said.

The governor’s commitment to water-supply development is encouraging for many who have struggled for years to highlight the need for more irrigation supplies.

pumping station
The Boardman Tree Farm pumping station.

“For the first time in a long time, we have requests for funds for a water-supply development program,” said Brenda Bateman, spokesperson for the Oregon Water Resources Department. “That includes above- and below-ground storage, interstate partnerships to gain access to stored water and other strategies. And we just haven’t had those kinds of strategic conversations in a very long time.” More water storage, Hansell said, means security for his operation — and for his son’s.

“It is always an unsecured future if you don’t have water in the desert,” Hansell said. “Without it you have nothing.”

(Article by Mitch Lies/Capital Press. Video by Courtney Flatt/NWPR/EarthFix.)

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