Central Oregon farmers struggle in drought

By Michael Kohn (The Bulletin)
BEND, Ore. June 7, 2021 1 p.m.

Farmers in central Oregon are struggling with a water shortage amid a drought and some of the worst affected are more recent irrigators with junior water rights

Cate Havstad-Casad, co-owner of Havstad-Casad Family Farms in Jefferson County, didn’t hold back last week while speaking on a Zoom call with state representatives about the drought conditions affecting farmers in Jefferson County.

Speaking during a meeting of the House Water Committee chaired by Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, Havstad-Casad told the legislators in stark terms that Jefferson County farms are starving for water while farms in other parts of the Deschutes Basin have more water than they need, The Bulletin reported.


“What is happening through the forced dry up of this district, because we are junior water rights holders, is a massive ecological and a social disaster that not many people truly understand is happening,” said Havstad-Casad, a patron of the North Unit Irrigation District.

An irrigation pivot in Harney County, May 27, 2019. Farms here raise alfalfa

A file photo of an irrigation pivot in Harney County.

Emily Cureton / OPB

Havstad-Casad, a first-generation farmer, was highlighting concerns raised by others in Jefferson County, whose water allotments this year are so small that roughly half the county’s farmland is fallow. When the wind kicks up, the exposed ground creates clouds of dust in the Central Oregon sky as topsoil gets blown off the landscape.

“We watch it happen. We stand in the middle of it. It’s like watching your children’s future blow away,” she said.

She had been invited to speak to the legislators by the Coalition for the Deschutes, a nonprofit that works with both farmers and environmentalists to protect the Deschutes River.

Her stirring testimony compared the topsoil loss in Jefferson County to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Havstad-Casad asked legislators to support farmers to plant cover crops, which help to reduce the dust storms.

“The farmers must be supported to cover that topsoil,” she said. “It is securing our futures.”

In addition to topsoil loss, said Havstad-Casad, farmers are facing financial hardship because their costs remain just as high as a normal season, but their profits are slashed due to the lost acreage.

“While we maintain 100% of our overhead costs, we are only able to farm 40% of our land because of the 40% allotment we have been given,” said Havstad-Casad, who practices regenerative agriculture on 200 acres of land. She has been farming near Madras since 2017 after moving there from a smaller property near Bend. The farm’s products include organically grown potatoes, onions and winter squash, as well as cattle and turkeys.

Drought and low reservoirs are the primary reasons behind the drop in water allotments. Wickiup Reservoir, the source of water for the North Unit Irrigation District, was just 31% full as of Friday. In an average year on the same date, the reservoir would be 79% full.

At its current pace, the reservoir will be empty by early August. A similar scenario played out last year when the water dried up in early September, forcing some irrigation districts to shut off their water prematurely.

The reservoir is draining quickly even though North Unit patrons are getting just 1 acre foot of water. Water patrons of other irrigation districts, including the Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID), are getting three times that amount. That’s because districts like COID have older (senior) water rights, so when water resources are restricted due to drought, junior rights holders have to curtail their water usage. Junior water rights holders get cut off in times of shortages.


Gail Snyder, founder of Coalition for the Deschutes, backs Havstad-Casad, saying that too much of Central Oregon’s water is being wasted and more of it needs to be shared.

“From watering sidewalks in the city to flooding fields in the county, our current use of water is wasteful and unsustainable,” said Snyder. “We need a cultural paradigm shift that leads to better stewardship by all of us.”

“And we need to address the glaring imbalance in the amount of water available to different groups of farmers so that some aren’t left like Oliver Twist, begging for drops while others have more than they need,” she added.

Farmers are asking Oregon’s legislators to eliminate red tape that makes sharing water difficult.

Tod Heisler, director of the rivers program for Central Oregon LandWatch, said the barriers to sharing water are the result of a lack of legislation.

“In response to drought, COID offered to allow patrons to share their water with farmers in Jefferson County,” said Heisler. “But without a program in place to do this, and a concerted communications effort to recruit patrons into the program, it is questionable what can actually happen.”

Greg Mintz, legislative director for Rep. Ken Helm, D-Washington County, said state legislators are actively working to resolve the water crisis faced by Jefferson County farmers. House Bill 3103A could make a difference, he said. This bill seeks to “fix Oregon’s broken statute for transfers of stored water,” said Mintz.

The bill passed out of the House Committee on Water in April with bipartisan support and it is now awaiting consideration of necessary funding in the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, said Mintz.

“We hope to see the bill pass out of Ways and Means and move to the House and Senate floor for votes,” said Mintz.

While North Unit farmers like Havstad-Casad are hoping for a better way to move water around Central Oregon, it’s still going to take a fair amount of campaigning to get other irrigators interested in sharing their water.

Shon Rae, the deputy managing director for COID, said just two out of 3,600 of the irrigation district’s patrons have expressed interest in sharing their water.

“That is approximately 17 acres out of our 46,000 acres of irrigated land,” said Rae.

Havstad-Casad said sharing water is the only short-term option, as current canal piping projects, which will also save water, are years away from completion.

“We don’t have time. The piping projects will take years to unroll,” said Havstad-Casad. “We are excited to see those projects send water this way, but I promise you, based on last season and the realities of this season, people who are seventh-generation farmers in this district are seriously considering throwing in the towel.”

She also offered the legislators a message of hope and a warning.

“We have the opportunity as a region to improve our management and share water more equitably,” she said, “because the farmers of North Unit do not have one more season in them like this one or the one last year.”


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