During most of the 20th century, water management practices in the West were designed to manipulate the supply to efficiently meet the needs of users. This supply-based approach resulted in the construction of large dams to store water and conveyance systems to deliver water to users. But it's no longer possible to solve water problems by throwing money at new construction projects. There are too many conflicting demands, and there's not enough supply to go around.
As a result, many states' water managers are now shifting toward strategies for conservation and control of demand. Some communities are also experimenting with new approaches to water use. But in the meanwhile, usage patterns remain fairly fixed. And the core questions remain much the same as 100 years ago. Who should be entitled to use water? Who actually uses the water? And how much water is really being used for various purposes?
Experts have written entire books on these subjects without being able to pin down any answers. But here are a few brief facts about some of Oregon's largest water users, users that have historically received inadequate supply and some groups that will need water in the future.
Irrigation is by far the state's largest consumer of water, accounting for roughly 4/5 of all water withdrawals in Oregon. As previously described, most of Oregon's precipitation falls on the western half of the state. But most irrigation occurs in eastern Oregon, where 97% of water withdrawals are for irrigation.
In general, irrigators hold very old water rights, entitling them to very large quantities of water. Even in dry years, these rights are exercised, resulting in very little surface water for downstream flows and junior right-holders.
Understandably, irrigators don't want to give up water when they hold the legal right and historical precedent. But because farmers and ranchers are one of the first user-groups to feel the pain of a water shortage, they may also be among the first to consider negotiated solutions.
Fish and Wildlife
Oregon has hundreds of dams, serving a wide variety of purposes. Each of the dams has altered the natural course and flow of water. As a consequence, salmon, steelhead and numerous other water-dependent species have been deprived of the resources that they need for survival.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires state and federal governments to consider the water needs of endangered species. This is one of the reasons behind the Klamath Basin conflicts of recent summers, which pitted the water rights of farmers against the needs of fish and wildlife.
The courts have become involved in litigation over the power of ESA to control the exercise of water rights. So far, the courts have consistently sided with the needs of fish and wildlife, overriding state water rights.
Manufacturing plants can be large consumers of water and power. When a shortage of water affected the Northwest in 2000, several aluminum smelters had to close down for economic reasons. As water supplies ran low, the amount of water used to generate electricity was reduced, and the price of electricity went up. The aluminum companies couldn't afford the jump in electrical rates. In addition, the companies' water rights weren't senior enough to guarantee the necessary supplies of water. Their only realistic choice was closure. Thousands of people were put out of work. Homes were lost. The regional economy suffered.
Now we have fewer aluminum plants. But the water those plants would have used has already been taken up by other users. So no water has been gained.
A tribe's water rights for reservation purposes are tied to the date of the enabling Treaty or Executive Order. Tribal water rights for instream flows that protect treaty-reserved fisheries are dated back to "time immemorial." To tribes, water may also have significant religious and cultural importance.
If these oldest water rights were enforced under Oregon's prior appropriation rules, non-Indian water users would be significantly impacted.
Across the West, conflicts over tribal water rights are being addressed through the court system. But litigation is expensive, and typically takes at least two decades to conclude. For these reasons, many tribes are now working in cooperation with irrigators and water managers to negotiate new "treaties" governing water use.
Oregon's population needs water for everyday uses, but it's not a huge amount of water. In fact, domestic use adds up to less than 6% of the state's water withdrawals. But the voices of many voters can speak more loudly than the voices of a few water managers or industrial manufacturers, persuading elected officials to give priority to domestic use.
Most Oregonians have already felt some effects of water shortages. Conservation has been strongly encouraged during recent summers, and voluntary use restrictions have been advised in some smaller communities.
But the state's population is still growing, and demand for water will continue to increase. Between 1990 and 1999, Oregon's population increased at nearly double the rate of national growth. Nearly 70% of Oregon's growth was a result of people moving here from other states.
These are just a few of the players in the battle for Oregon's water. To see where and how the conflicts boil to the surface, and how water managers are trying to resolve the disputes, go to Conflicts and Crises.