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Finding Solutions
Rick Bastasch
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Thoughts on Water
Rick Bastasch, Willamette Restoration Initiative
The executive director of the Willamette Restoration Initiative, Rick Bastasch is a recognized authority on the use and management of Oregon water. A lifelong Oregonian, Bastasch spent 12 years working with the Oregon Water Resources Department, specializing in river basin planning, strategic planning, and legislative analysis.
During the filming of The Oregon Story: Water, Bastasch discussed his view of Oregon's current water situation and his hopes for solutions to the impending crisis.
"The Oregon Water Code of 1909 did bring order to chaos. It was very progressive. It declared water a public resource. And not only was it progressive, it was successful. It brought a new world order, if you will, to the way Oregon water was allocated - and it worked for some time.
"The deal was: you come here, you develop resources, you find a way to farm the land, and we'll reward you with free water and the certainty of having that water for as long as you need it.
"A flaw was that the environmental needs were not considered. The effects that water withdrawal could have on stream systems, fish and wildlife, salmon, weren't really ever contemplated. So it was never truly accounted for in the 1909 water law.
"Consequently, today we're faced with plummeting salmon populations. We have other water-dependent species that are in trouble. And we're struggling to find a way to make up for water that has been taken away from them in the past. Trying to find ways to return water in fair ways, over time, that won't disrupt economies.
"In addition, I think what happened is that, words on paper notwithstanding, we never really took to heart the message of scarcity embedded in that 1909 law — the idea that water was truly scarce, and that there was a point at which you risked the system by fully allocating all the available water. I think the public would be surprised to learn that it's perfectly okay, if you have the right permits, to pump a stream dry. I mean that just doesn't seem right to a lot of people, but in point of fact, it happens all the time.
"We just sort of lost our bearings a little bit and deviated from some embedded fundamentals in the law, so by the end of the 20th century, and the beginning of the 21st, things are really complicated. We're trying to retrofit and mitigate for decisions that were both made, and not made, over the past hundred years. And it gets complicated, particularly when no one knows the system.
"The laws will tell you it's a publicly owned resource. The test will be if we really mean that. Right now, in spite of being publicly owned and as valuable as we all recognize it to be, water is not truly treated as a state asset. No one would allow state timber to be cut without accountability or payment. That says something.
"The water issues in Oregon today have to do with supply. How much is there? How is the limited supply being shared now? Who's got the rights to the water? How can that water that's been legally locked up under permits and rights be shared? Because there's not a lot of new water to go around. And this all plays out in a number of ways.
"What we have, in shifting societal values, is a chance to put our money where our mouth is. And I think a market economy allows us to do that pretty well. But in terms of, 'What's it worth to you?', that's where the action will be in the next 10 or 20 years.
"We have growing cities. We're going to double our population in Oregon in the next 50 years. That's a lot more people who will require water not only for their homes but also for their businesses. And there will be a continued need for agricultural water. Right now we have an agriculture economy that is shifting. How it fares over the next 50 years is anyone's guess. Agriculture, today, is in the tank and it's not looking very good. So in terms of how water is used and what it's used for — whether we grow silicon chips or potato chips -is culturally changing. With that come some questions of identity and fairness to the extent that city people need water and should it be withdrawn from an agricultural base? If so, is it done explicitly, deliberately, consciously and fairly or does it just kind of happen?
"One part of me says that it's within a noble Oregon tradition to work together and resolve issues once we become critically aware of them. Another part of me wonders whether we still have the statewide community feeling to actually make progress in terms of the interest bartering that has to take place between the two sides. I think it's an open question. I hope for the former - though the latter, in the form of more and more crises, wouldn't surprise me.
"The rules are always going to change and we just don't have a very intelligent, workable, effective way to engage people, to marshal together a sense of community in that change, so it's going to be one side fighting against another — a zero-sum game, where one person's gain is another person's loss, and I'm not sure it has to be that way.
"It's a question of being smart about water supply, being fair about water supply, and having a civil conversation — a dialogue — with people who have the water now and those who will need the water in the future.
"I think there are lots of lessons to be learned elsewhere. We have not been required to do much homework in Oregon. We've luxuriated in having a pretty good water supply. It's more limited than people think and it has long been limited just by nature.
"I think we collectively do want the next generation, our kids, to enjoy water, to drink good water, to use good water for industry, for agriculture and to preserve the environment that keeps us here. I think there is that interest.
"And Oregon is a laboratory for some new tools. For example, if you look at our industry and water rights laws, we can now, in theory, get a water right for environmental purposes. There are a number of innovations in Oregon law that we should feel proud about. We are being innovative. But I'm not sure, quite yet, that we can see whether we're being successful."