Think Out Loud

How Central Oregon is coming together to meet challenges related to scarce water resources, worsening drought

By Allison Frost (OPB)
March 4, 2024 6:48 p.m. Updated: March 5, 2024 4:09 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, March 5

Bobby Brunoe is the CEO of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and one of the co-chairs of the Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative.

Bobby Brunoe is the CEO of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and one of the co-chairs of the Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative.

Allison Frost / OPB


The Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative draws together water users In Central Oregon who are often put in the position of competing for water. Irrigators, fish and wildlife advocates and managers, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, cities and county residents using groundwater from private wells have been working together for more than 20 years with notable successes. Those include funding and implementing programs that have both preserved water for agriculture and provided for drinking water and fish and wildlife. The collaborative model is different from other kinds of negotiating, like mediation or lawmaking. But ongoing drought conditions are posing challenges that even those with decades of experience managing water resources have not faced. We talked with those integrally involved with and affected by water supply and water policy in front of an audience in an event space overlooking the Deschutes River.

We bring you that conversation today, slightly edited for clarity and brevity, with: Bend Mayor Melanie Kebler and utility director Mike Buettner; Redmond Mayor Ed Fitch; Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Chang; Bobby Brunoe, CEO for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and one of the co-chairs of the Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative; Kate Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy; farmers in two different irrigation districts in the Basin, Phil Fine and Matt Lisignoli; and Tod Heisler, River Advocate with Central Oregon Landwatch. This show is the last in our solution-oriented series funded by the Oregon Community Foundation.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller:  This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller, coming to you today in front of an audience in Bend, overlooking the Deschutes River. We have come to Bend to talk about water in the Deschutes Basin. Anglers and ranchers, cities and developers, farmers and fish and frogs, everyone and everything needs some of the water here. But as in many parts of the west, there’s just not enough to go around. We’re gonna get to many perspectives on these issues today.

This is part of a series of conversations we’ve had over the last year or so about some of the state’s most pressing problems and some possible solutions. We’re gonna start with two folks right now from the City of Bend. Melanie Kebler is the mayor. Mike Buettner is the utilities director. Welcome to you both.

Melanie Kebler:  Thanks, Dave.

Mike Buettner:  Thanks for having us.

Miller:  Mayor Kebler, I wanna start with a stat that really surprised me, that Bend’s population has basically doubled in about the last 20 years. But your water usage, over that same period, is more or less unchanged. It’s a little bit higher than it was about 20 years ago. There are a lot of reasons for that I understand. What role does land use play in that?

KeblerWell, Dave, I think the way that we use our land and how we develop within our urban growth boundary, because as a city in Oregon, we’re restricted to our urban growth boundary, is hugely important for how we think about our water future. And one of the things that Bend has been a leader on in the state is developing, not just within our boundary, but in a way that helps us conserve water.

And a big part of that is having homes that are better for that purpose. So it can be denser homes. It can be multi-family homes which are more efficient when it comes to water. And when we do new neighborhoods in Bend, for many years now, we do a master plan. So we [take] an idea of looking at the whole area, figuring out where the open spaces are gonna be, where the homes are gonna go.

And we recently did a version of that called “The Concept Plan” on the east side of town. And we put out three different concept plans for the public. And the one that was the best for water and for open space was the one that had some good density in that plan. So I think that’s what we’re starting to see in Bend is different types of homes and built in different types of ways, but that match that water future.

Miller:  Mike Buettner, what are some of the home-specific decisions that people make, I imagine voluntarily largely, that make a difference here?

BuettnerFirst, you think about where they choose to live or what that home looks like. Ten years ago, when somebody arrived in Bend, they often found themselves looking at houses or homes for sale that might have had a square footage or a lot square footage of 7,000, 8,000, 9,000 square feet. Today, when you move to Bend and look for a home, it’s 4,000, 5000, 6000 square feet. So really just that initial lot size consideration. When you make that choice, you’re making a lot of water choices when you move into that big lot with a big landscape.

In addition to that, I think really just paying attention to the actual water use that they’re consuming these days. More and more this data is available to you. It’s available to you on your smartphone. You can get a text in the morning to let you know if you used too much water the day before. So a lot of those modern technologies, those modern conveniences we use to help us make smart decisions have entered the water world.

So you have an old toilet to replace. Well, now you go down to a big box store and 10 of those 11 toilets are all EPA WaterSense labeled toilets. The decision is already kind of embedded there for you. But making smart choices like that and just paying attention to where you’re using water.

Miller:  Melanie Kebler, what goes through your mind when you see a big beautiful grassy lawn in the middle of the high desert?

KeblerOh, I think about how many people email me about said lawn, and why do we have that?

Miller:  And they say, “Mayor, what are you going to do about this?”

Kebler:  I think they want the city to play a role in shaping, literally, the landscape of the city in a way that is really cognizant of how we use water. And we have some ways to do that. We can’t just automatically tell someone to rip up a lawn. But what we’re working towards is what we do in our regulations for, specifically, the right of way, the streets, the strips that go next to the road. And how do we also incentivize people, not only to maybe build waterwise landscaping in the first place, but if they have grass, to think about changing that.

And I think a lot of that goes back to our peak time of water use here in Bend. It’s in the summer when people are irrigating. That’s the top use of water. So the more we can have people start thinking about that and saying, do you need a lawn in front and behind your house and think about how much water that uses, and then what we can do on our side, on regulation. I think we can start taking those steps to move away from that type of irrigation.

Miller:  So we’ve been talking about residences and homes. But Mike, what about the municipal level? What are you doing to use less water?

BuettnerYeah, lots of things. I think we’ve talked about density here already. Developing conservation programs for your customers is really where we’re focused right now. The City of Bend and other Central Oregon cities have a recent history, in the last 10 or 20 years, of developing conservation programs for our customers. Things like cash-for-grass programs, smart irrigation.

Miller:  Meaning, we’ll give you money if you take out your lawn?

BuettnerYeah, you got that right. I say cash for grass these days and people go a different direction. [Audience laughs] But turf removal, grass removal is a really thirsty-plant choice in the high desert. And I think that’s one of the things that’s really interesting about Central Oregon. We are pretty unique compared to some of your other listeners that live in wetter, more green areas. Seasonal water use is a real challenge for us as a water utility. So that water use that comes in June, July, August, September is really what stresses us.

So to answer your question, Dave, “How do we use less?” it’s those conservation programs for the public, it’s that density, and it’s also how you operate the system. Are you looking at distribution efficiency from the point of entry into your distribution system to the water meter that’s in front of somebody’s house? When you have 30,000 of those water meters like we do in the City of Bend, that matters. So really looking closely at distribution efficiency, doing things like leak detection, on your own distribution system. All of those things add up to this current state that you mentioned when you kicked us off, in terms of maintaining the use of water that we have been able to maintain the last two decades.

Miller:  We’ve been talking so far about water in Bend. But a lot of people live in Deschutes County, in unincorporated areas. And a lot of them have been having serious issues with water in recent years. Phil Chang is a member of the Deschutes County Commission. He’s in the audience with us. How many wells have gone dry in Deschutes County in recent years?

Phil Chang:  In the last two or three years, we have seen a few hundred individual domestic wells in Deschutes County go dry. And it’s a big concern.

Miller:  What options do folks have when that happens?

Chang:  Typically people only have the option of digging a deeper well.

The aquifer here is quite thick. But with the kinds of groundwater level declines that we’ve experienced in the last couple of decades, that doesn’t protect many of these domestic well owners, the homeowners, I mean. Some of the analysis that’s been done by the Oregon Water Resources Department shows a sensitivity of 10, 15 feet drop in groundwater levels, could result in thousands of additional wells going dry.

Miller:  Not to mention the cost. We’re talking about tens of thousands of dollars to dig deeper often?

Chang:  Yes. I spoke to someone in the Sisters area two days ago who said they got a quote to deepen their well and that was $100,000. But I’ve heard from many Deschutes County residents who would peg it somewhere $30,000, $40,000,  $50,000 per residence. And again, if we have 17,000 domestic wells in Deschutes County, if all of those had to do a retrofit or a deepening, it adds up to quite a lot of money.

Miller:  So, what do you see as a longterm solution?

Chang:  We need to slow or reverse the decline in groundwater levels in the region. And there’s only so much control we have over that situation. Much of the reason for the groundwater level declines is climatic and we can’t control that. But the part of the equation that is, how many straws there are in the ground and how much water each individual household is using. That’s where we can have some leverage. And unfortunately, those same individual domestic well owners are some of the ones who are most vulnerable to groundwater level declines. But they are also contributing to the situation as are groundwater users. And since we don’t have a water utility like the City of Bend does for these individual wells, we can’t offer people incentives. We can’t offer people education, to what are called exempt wells. They aren’t even metered. So we don’t even have any idea how much water any given rural household is using.

Miller:  Phil Chang, thanks very much.

Chang:  Thank you.

Miller:  Phil Chang is a member of the Deschutes County Commission.

Mayor Kebler, we’ve started this hour with conversations about domestic water supplies in your city or for people in unincorporated parts of the county. But just to put this in perspective, how much water in the basin is used in cities, compared to agricultural water or is needed for ecological reasons in the river?

Kebler:  Well, most people don’t realize, and it’s always fun to tell people, if you look at the pie and you look at just the water rights, which we don’t even usually use all of ours all year round, it’s 2%. That’s all municipalities in the basin. So again, we do what we can as far as conservation and we know that we have an impact. And we wanna be good stewards of our river, which is a beloved reason that people move here and live here.

But we need that collaboration and I think this basin has a history of really great collaboration in trying to tackle agricultural use and other uses that are impacting the river and our water as well. That’s what it’s gonna take. It can’t just be one or two cities on their own or just a commission talking to people with wells. We all have to work together on this issue.

Miller:  Melanie Kebler and Mike Buettner, thanks very much.

Kebler: Thank you.

Miller: Melanie Kebler is the mayor of Bend. Mike Buettner is the city’s utility director.

Bobby Brunoe is a CEO of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and one of the co-chairs of the Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative. Kate Fitzpatrick is the executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy. Welcome to both of you.

Bobby Brunoe:  Thank you.

Kate Fitzpatrick:  Thank you, Dave.

Miller:  Bobby Brunoe, I’m just curious. As I mentioned at the very beginning, we’re 60 feet or so from the Deschutes River. It’s sunny now. It’s been snowing beautifully for a couple of days. What goes through your mind when you look at the river?

BrunoeSalmon. Fish and the first gift to the Creator. So looking at that water then also makes me think about when I was growing up, as a kid on the river, fishing.

Miller:  What do you rely on the river for?

BrunoeAs a tribe, we rely on the river a lot. You heard me mention the first gift to The Creator. So the Creator gave us a gift. First gift he gave us was water and to take care of that water. Second gift is fish, the salmon, and to take care of those gifts. And so culturally, that’s deep in us and important to us, to all our tribal members. And water is in our community.

We’ve had some challenges with water treatment plants and others. It’s been in the news. I think a lot of folks have heard about that and read about it. So having good clean water for our community and for all our tribal members there. Also having good water and clean water for our fish. We are river people. We come from the Columbia River. And so fish are very important to us, and especially salmon. And I focus on salmon, but there’s also the other fish. There’s the steelhead, the sturgeon, all those fish are important to us, the trout. That’s part of who we are.

And also with that, we have a Treaty of 1855. [On] June 25th, 1855 we signed a treaty with the US government and we reserved rights there and the important word there is “reserved.” We reserved rights. We didn’t give up any rights to be able to fish, hunt, gather our cultural foods, and to pasture livestock on unclaimed lands. And we ceded 10 million acres to the US government. The City of Bend is within our treaty lands here.

That’s why we’re very active in Bend and on the Deschutes River, because most of this is our homelands, and clear to the Columbia. We come from Celilo Falls, which is now gone. I was never old enough to actually see it but a lot of my older family were able to and fish there. So it’s very, very deep in us. It’s very important to us. And it’s also looking out for these resources, also looking out for our Treaty in protecting those. It protects our Treaty, protects our fish, and vice versa. So, it’s very important to the Tribes.

Miller:  Kate Fitzpatrick, the current water year, meaning the last five months, they actually look good for snowpack, a lot better than we’ve seen in recent years. But that’s because, for the last 20 years or so, scientists call this a mega drought, the driest time in something like 1,200 years. How much clarity is there right now about what an average year looks like in the coming decades?

FitzpatrickYeah, Dave, there’s not a lot of clarity. There are climate change predictions out there that vary. Some of them show that it might just be as much precipitation or more, but it will likely come in the form of rain and not snow, which has implications for water supply as well.

Miller:  Huge ones right?

Fitzpatrick:  Yeah, there’s no delay of storage in the system. So the rain washes down throughout the year. And so [during] the summer months you will not have as much flow in the river or available for irrigation or other uses.

Miller:  One of the most helpful single sentences that I’ve heard is that there are more water rights or more people or entities have been granted water rights than there is water. Can you give us a sense for just the percentages there? I mean what does that actually mean though?

FitzpatrickYou have to think about the history of how this area was developed. So back in the late 1800s, the public owns the water but the state manages the water and gives away water rights. And whoever got here first, their water right is filled completely, before the next down the line. So having a senior right is important. By 1905, in the Deschutes Basin, more water was given out of the Deschutes River than exists in the stream in the summer months. So what you would see here is zero water in the river and 100% of it diverted just upstream where we sit right now. In addition, the irrigation interests that were given water rights, especially if they’re older than around 1905, depending on the year, they also face water scarcity.

Miller:  What does that mean for the collaborative work, Bobby, that you’ve been a part of? I mean, just the basic point of scarcity?

Brunoe:  Over the years with climate change, but even before we started really experiencing climate change, we’ve always, for the Tribes, thought about water. Again, because it was a gift and that we’re supposed to take care of. So we’ve always thought about water and what does that mean into the future? Because we’re always thinking seven generations out and beyond. And how are we gonna have these things in place for future generations to enjoy and also take care of?

So with the Tribes on our reservation, [which] is 640,000 acres, 1,000 square miles, there’s a little over 5,000 Tribal members on the reservation. And we’re not going anywhere. We’re gonna be there forever. And our neighbors are gonna be here forever. So all these folks in Central Oregon are our neighbors and they’re gonna be here. So we need to be working together to come up with solutions and ways to take care of the water. And that’s why we’re engaged in the Collaborative, because we get a lot more work done working together than not working together.

Miller:  Am I right that you also get more federal money? The Feds like to see people cooperating and agreeing as opposed to grumbling or suing each other?

BrunoeYes, that’s accurate. And working together and being able to show that with our partnerships enables us to get more federal funding and be able to go out and talk to the legislators and say, “Hey we need some more funding or appropriations,” whether that’s federal or the state level to come help us in our basin.

Miller:  Kate, what’s an example of a collaborative success that you can point to where, if things had gone differently, it could have ended up in, either acrimony or just plain old litigation, a lawsuit that could be drawn out for a long time?

FitzpatrickThere’s three main buckets, no pun intended, in large-scale water conservation. So we live in a volcanic porous landscape. And so when the water gets diverted, it travels through hundreds of miles of canals to get to the farm. And those canals seep into the aquifer. So you have to send twice as much water to the farm than you would if you had a pipe system. So a lot of the work is piping large scale irrigation canals. You can take that water and actually protect it from diversion in the river. So about a half of the water that you would see in the summer, below Bend, is from conservation.

And then the other bucket is what we call “market-based incentives.” So if you hold a water right and you choose not to use it in a given year, we can compensate you for that. And we will protect that water and stream through the state. We can also do permanent acquisitions of water at some level. So those are the major tools along with the large-scale basin planning that we’re engaged in with all the partners.

Miller:  For the first example you gave, if that water is now staying in the river as opposed to filtering down through porous volcanic rock and going into the aquifer, does that mean that it’s also less likely to end up in somebody’s well? On some level, this water, this is a zero-sum game, right?

Fitzpatrick:  At some level, but you have to look at the trade-offs. So that water is getting diverted at the expense of a healthy river system. And then again, a lot of the domestic wells were drilled into the shallow aquifer at a time when there was artificial recharge from canals. So it’s  not ideal for people who need to invest in deepening wells. But it’s a bit of a rebalancing act to make sure we have a healthy river ecosystem.

Miller:  What do you see as the biggest challenges right now? I mean, you’ve just outlined examples of collaborations that have worked in recent years that have actually yielded real results. What do you see as the biggest problem right now?

FitzpatrickThe ongoing drought and potential climate change is probably the biggest challenge. I mean, every year is a drought year for the streams because of the over-allocation of water rights. But it’s making it harder to do projects. It’s making it harder for irrigators to get water in the summer. It’s contributing to the groundwater declines that we’re talking about. That is a major challenge for the basin and a challenge for the cities to get future water supplies as well.


Miller:  Bobby Brunoe, what about you? What do you think doesn’t get enough attention in conversations about this watershed, this basin?

BrunoeWell, you’ve heard Kate talking about flow, a lot of water flow. One of the things is water quality. How good is this water? How are we taking care of it? What are our wetlands and our meadows doing to clean these waters? Having not only just clean but cold water.

Miller:  Kate, am I right that a lot of the examples that you were talking about before, those are voluntary partnerships where often because of some kind of economic incentive, they’ve worked? Do you feel like the low hanging fruit has already been picked? You’ve achieved what you can from those voluntary partnerships or is there more that can be done just with existing market forces or goodwill?

FitzpatrickThere’s more that can be done. And there’s also a synergy between the projects that we’re doing. So, the more infrastructure that we pipe or modernize, the more market-based incentives we can put in place because it becomes easier to move the water around. So there are always more opportunities. And I think those will only increase the more work that we do in the basin.

Miller:  Kate Fitzpatrick and Bobby Brunoe,  thanks very much.

BrunoeThank you.

FitzpatrickThanks, Dave.

Miller:  Bobby Brunoe is the CEO of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and one of the co-chairs of the Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative. Kate Fitzpatrick is the executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy.

We’re gonna get the perspective from two farmers right now. Phil Fine is a third generation farmer near Madras who grows hay, small grains, carrot and grass seed and fresh cut flowers. Matt Lisignoli has a pumpkin patch and a corn maze near Smith Rock and grows other crops in Jefferson County. Welcome to you both.

Matt Lisignoli:  Thank you.

Phil Fine:  Thanks.

Miller:  Matt, first, I wanna focus on 2021 which, it seems like, was a really challenging year for you and many other farmers with maybe a lot of lessons as well. When did you realize in 2021 that you were in serious trouble, water-wise?

LisignoliWell, they allocate a certain amount of water. The North Unit Irrigation Board will get together and determine how much water is available. Traditionally, we get two acre-feet. And that year they watched the stream flows or the snow pack and determined that there’s gonna be a one acre-foot. So that’s what we budget for. And every crop that you grow takes a different amount of irrigation water. So a lot of growers, having only half the water, either fallowed ground or made choices of crops that would require less water. We all budget to get us over the finish line and everything was good for probably the first three or four months of the season.

Then they started saying that the recharge and the snow pack wasn’t adequate for what they’d allocated. It came out that they just basically said, “Hey, the water’s really short,” and they cut back our allocation substantially. I grow a lot of the hay crops, the wheat crops, they use water earlier in the season and a lot of water. But I also grow pumpkins up there too and the pumpkins require water about when the wheat and the hay crops are finishing up.

So the water I’d saved for the pumpkins, when they reduced the allocation, suddenly I had no water left. I was actually in a deficit. So we had to stop all irrigation. This is July 4th of 2021. You probably remember the day too, Phil. And so I shut all the water down and the Irrigation District said that we could only run a certain percentage of our water per day which, for me, meant I couldn’t even run one line of irrigation at a time. There’s a lot of different irrigation systems. There’s drip, there’s flood, there’s wheel lines, hand lines, pivots, and each one of those takes a certain amount of water before they can operate efficiently.

Miller:  What was going through your mind at that time? I mean, you had all these sunk costs. I mean the pumpkins were growing. Were you thinking that the worst case scenario is that you would lose that entire crop?

LisignoliThat was traumatic. I mean, everything you got, all your production costs. The one advantage you have with hay is you can cut the hay and be done. You just cut your losses and that was it. And then wheat, we stopped irrigating the wheat. That was some of the worst wheat I had ever produced because it needs to be irrigated till the end. There’s a lot of shrivel, a lot of shrink.

The toughest one for me was my pumpkin production. I grow a lot of specialty crops or specialty pumpkins and squash up in Jefferson County. And we delivered a lot of pumpkins to the local stores and they were just starting to flower at that time. So I’m looking at that and thinking, what am I gonna do? Everybody in the district’s gonna be short on water. So it’s not like you can borrow and nobody’s gonna sell water or transfer water to you.

I heard about an emergency program. If you had land in both, you had to own the land in two irrigation districts then you could transfer the water from one to the other. So I researched that within days of getting the notification that the water’s getting shut off. Let me backup for people that wouldn’t understand. So, of the two irrigation districts, our home is in Deschutes County, which is Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID). And they have senior water rights. And then where we’re talking about was Jefferson County, that got the water cut back so much.

At that point, I talked with COID, met with their board and asked them about doing the water transfer and got approval from them. And the same day met with the Deschutes or North Unit and got approval from their board for the transfer. But then we had to go through the whole transfer process which was complicated and laborious and inefficient. I will say the Irrigation Districts worked really well together to try and accommodate me. I mean, I was kind of the test pilot for all the programs. One of the big flaws was it required a two week public notice in The Oregonian. So how effective was that?

Miller:  So eventually it did work even though it was slower than you would have wanted. Did you have to wait a little bit?

LisignoliToo little, too late. I got everything approved. Nobody could give me answers because we get different allocations in COID than we do in North Unit. So if I transfer 10 acres of water from COID, do I get twice the allocation up in North Unit? Nobody could give me any answers. So they had this program, but there were no real answers. Nobody knew all the nuts and bolts of it.

Miller:  And this was only possible because you were in the special situation that you had rights in both places, right? I mean, so that’s a special situation to begin with?

LisignoliYeah. And there’s other farmers in Jefferson County that looked at coming down and renting land in Deschutes County and then trying to transfer that. But the program I used was specific for landowners, if you own land in both.

Miller:  Phil Fine, what about you? What has your water situation been like in recent years?


Miller:  In one word.

Fine:  The year Matt’s talking about, that never happened before. So not only did we have to cut allocations, but in order to ensure that we had enough water for everybody to make it through the season, you had allocations on how much you could order each day. So, we’ll make it simple and we’ll talk wheel lines. You have 80 acres. You’re gonna have, usually, four wheels on that 80 acres. You could only order enough water to run one wheel line, like Matt was alluding to. So you’ve got this whole field and you can only water two acres of it at a time. And so it was very challenging.

And at the time of year, we had made it through a couple of cuttings of hay. The grass, as far as for seed, was pretty well done. But we grow the major portion of the world’s carrot seed supply in Jefferson County and we had to finish those. So basically, you did an about shift and you concentrated all your water on your highest grossing crop which, conversely, has the highest inputs. You watered your carrots and some of the growers were still trying to get a hay crop, trying to finish that crop, doing the best they could. But that was a unique situation that had never been done before. And the fact that you could only order so much water per day.

How our system works is you figure out you’re gonna water this 80 acres. You figure out how much water it needs. You order that much water so you can water the whole field. And like I say, with wheel lines, that would be like a six to six-and-a-half day rotation, a pivot would be about 48 hours to two-and-a-half days maybe. And so you didn’t even have enough water where you could run that pivot. You couldn’t order enough water. I believe it was one foot and a pivot takes two feet, 1.9 to 2.2 [feet], depending on your situation.

So you had a lot of guys with pivots that couldn’t even irrigate because you couldn’t get enough water into your system. What they did was they said, well, you can borrow from the next one. So basically, you could get your two feet to run your pivot. But then you couldn’t order water again for however many days it took you to run that pivot. It was something we’ve never done before and put it this way, everybody has a business plan. Ours was changing by the day.

Miller:  What do you see as solutions here? Is there a solution as far as you’re concerned?

FineYeah, a whole bunch of snow. A cool spring. A little bit of rain. I’m a farmer.

Miller:  But as you know, sadly, I mean, most of us want more snow. But that’s not what’s called for in the coming decades. We’re gonna get less.

FineSo there’s several things at play here. We have seniority. North Unit Irrigation District, where I farm, is the junior water rights holder in the whole system. So when water gets tight, we’re last in line. We get cut off first. We’re 80% stored water. When that reservoir doesn’t fill, that’s basically our big bucket. And we do also have rights on the Crooked River.

The biggest issue is the drought. I mean, that’s a huge factor. What we were doing last year and the year before…last year was a little better than two years prior. That was the least amount of water that had ever come out of the Deschutes Basin. And that was for everybody in recorded history. And so we start working with our partners and there’s some things we can do with the senior water right users, basically the irrigation districts up in the Bend area.

We’ve tried some pilot programs where, if somebody doesn’t want or need to use their water, we can send it down to North Unit. And so we’ve got some pilot programs there. We also have some conservation programs like the piping. So the piping that conserves water, basically, can go back in stream or can stay in storage to be released at a later date for habitat. [That] is the way we’ve set it up. So there’s a lot of working pieces and not any one of them fixes it. But hopefully with time as we go through this and learn some of these nuances of what we’re trying to do, that it will help.

I can’t stress enough though, we’ve done a lot of conservation in this basin and it was working pretty well. But once again, the drought, it’s the severe drought. And I don’t know [if] any of us was prepared for its severity. We do all this modeling and everybody says, “Well, you should have modeled for it.” We couldn’t. We’ve never seen it. You can’t model. I mean, the figures were so off the charts on the bottom that nobody could have foreseen it. And we didn’t even think…I mean, we modeled for drought. But we modeled for historic traditional drought. We had history but we didn’t have any history for this one.

Miller:  Matt, I understand that your adult children are not interested in making your first generation farm a second generation farm. You were originally from Portland. You came out here to become a farmer. If one of your kids said, “I wanna take over the farm,” given what you’ve experienced in recent years, would you say, “Yes, you should?”

LisignoliI wouldn’t force him into it. And I think what they’ve seen is historically, the challenges we face. We have to deal with the weather, markets, we have to deal with input costs. The price of fertilizer tripled a couple of years ago. I feel fortunate. We have a retail portion of our farm and that helps a lot. If I was strictly growing commodity crops, it would be devastating. I mean, it’s a great lifestyle. I wanted to raise my kids on a farm and they turned out really good kids. But it’s all in. You have to be committed to it full-time. And I think they look at all the challenges and they’re just not interested. I don’t know that I’d encourage them into it. It’s a good lifestyle. It’s not an easy lifestyle.

Miller:  Matt and Phil, thanks very much.

LisignoliThank you.

FineThank you.

Miller:  Matt Lisignoli is a pumpkin farmer. He’s known as the Pumpkin King. Phil Fine is a third generation farmer near Madras who grows hay and small grains and carrot and grass seed and fresh cut flowers.

We turn now to the City of Redmond. Ed Fitch is the Redmond mayor. Welcome to the show.

Ed Fitch:  Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Miller:  Can you give us a sense for the big water issue that your city is facing right now?

FitchWell, in December 2022, we applied for a groundwater permit for the five cubic feet for both rate, which is like the increase in the summertime and also volume year-round. We recently received an initial review from the Water Resource Department indicating they will deny the permit. Now, needless to say, we have sharp disagreements with Water Resources. We believe that under Oregon law, in particular, both the city of Redmond and Water Resources have an obligation to comply with our statewide planning goals. That would require us to have certainty of water for at least the next 20 years and even beyond. And that was why we applied for the permit. The Oregon Resources Commission also has a similar obligation to comply with the statewide planning goals.

As Melanie [the mayor of Bend] indicated, we only use 2% of the total amount of the water in the basin. I would say that, like Bend, all the cities in Central Oregon are working aggressively on conservation plans to use the water more wisely and to exercise good stewardship. We believe the appropriate approach for Water Resources is to comply with the statewide planning goals to allow cities to have that certainty of water long-term, so that we can basically tell businesses we may have water now, but we will have water in the future as well.

The City of Redmond has a unique position that the state has put a lot of eggs in the basket in Redmond. We have over 800 acres of land owned by the Department of State Lands for development. That money will go into the common school fund. We have the soon-to-be second largest fairgrounds in the United States. We also have the site for CORE3, which is training for police, fire, and first responders. But all three of those, together with our airport, will be the site for relief in the event of [a] Cascadia [earthquake].

And so the state is investing a lot of resources, money, property in Redmond. We also have a very large need for more housing, particularly affordable housing. And to comply with all those requirements, we have to have certainty that we’ll have water to serve all that. Combined with the appropriate conservation and stewardship, I think that’s gonna be the appropriate resolution for the City of Redmond and for all the cities in central Oregon.

Miller:  What would it mean for your city if that decision would actually come down as the provisional one came and then your appeals didn’t work? I mean, if the answer is “No, you cannot have this extra water that you’ve asked for,” just play it out for us. What would that mean?

FitchSo 25 years ago, I was mayor of Redmond as well. And at that time, we had an issue of connectivity of surface water and groundwater. And we put together a collaboration which ended up with the Deschutes Basin Mitigation Plan where we exchange surface water for ground- water. And so we put water back into the river to improve stream flows. I think at this juncture, right now, we’re gonna have to come up with a similar plan to go with the 2025 legislature to come up with a program that’s gonna make sense, not only for the long-terms of the cities, but also exercising that appropriate stewardship, conservatorship, lowering per capita use of water in the cities. But that’s where the growth is gonna happen. And there’s a lot invested in that growth.

Miller:  I think what you just said is separate from the answer to my question. I mean, you’re talking about your plan for conservation and, and what you’d like from the legislature. But let’s say the state commission, the agency, just says, “No, we are not going to give you the increasing water that you say you need to grow in the future.” What would that mean for Redmond?

FitchWell, it would end up in court. We believe that under the current law and under the current status of the aquifer, the court would probably require the approval of that permit. You know, when you look at this, there’s certain basins in Oregon that are in crisis mode, much shallower aquifers, water contamination issues. That’s not the case in Deschutes Basin. We certainly have a level of concern that needs to be addressed. But when you look at an aquifer that’s 1,300 feet deep and, with this drought, has gone down about 30 feet, plus or minus, there is certainly a cause for concern. But it’s not a crisis to prohibit additional water, particularly for cities.

Miller:  Ed Fitch, thanks very much.

We’re gonna end our show today with Tod Heisler. He has spent more than 25 years doing conservation work in the region including 15 years at the Deschutes River Conservancy. He is now the river’s advocate for Central Oregon LandWatch.

So you’ve been doing this work for decades. Now, what do you see as the most urgent aspect of the Bend Watershed right now? What causes you the biggest concern?

Tod HeislerWell, I think the biggest concern I have goes to really what Matt and Phil were talking about. It’s that we have a 125 year old water system that does not distribute water very well for our modern day needs. And those guys are commercial farmers. And with all due respect to them, the majority of water rights holders in Central Oregon are not commercial farmers. And many of them, because of the system, possess old water rights. And in a senior district, when you get most of your water in most years and even in the drought year, you’re doing a lot better than the juniors. Over this century we’ve created a real disincentive for those people on those properties to actually use their water efficiently. So I look at the reservoir of conservation that is available to us. So it’s a problem. The flip side of that is, it’s an enormous opportunity to tap what I would call wasted water. It’s a dirty word here. But wasted water, in senior districts, can turn into water for commercial farmers, water for the City of Redmond and Bend, water for fish.

Miller:  Can you describe - and you wrote an op-ed about this not too long ago - but when you say wasted water, what’s an example of a property, obviously without naming names, that has senior rights and is using water, but in your mind, in a wasteful way? What exactly are you talking about?

HeislerWell, the state has a principle in water rights [to] put your water to beneficial use without waste. Beneficial use is very loosely defined. What it means, practically speaking, is that we put water on it - could be rocks, could be weeds, could be alfalfa, could be a whole number of different things. We measure, we monitor beneficial use from the air. Is it green or is it brown? So that’s how we determine whether the water is beneficially used.

If you’re trying to hold on to a water right and the district’s operations work better with a lot of water flowing, you’re gonna be encouraged and you’re gonna be spreading water around, not really for a commercial use, but to protect probably the value of your real estate and your water rights that are on that property. That isn’t inherently a bad thing if you’re that property owner. But you add that all up and you’ve now got a reservoir of water that could be deployed elsewhere.

Miller:  But what you’re describing, if I’m not mistaken, is the result of 100-plus years of law, right? These are people who are following the law. They are first in line to get the water and they’re using it, you’re saying, not in a wise way, societally, not to grow alfalfa or seed, and also not to keep it in the river to help fish. What’s the mechanism you’re suggesting that would make it so water is being used in smarter ways holistically, but would also make those people whole? I mean, they paid for that water. I assume that was priced in when they got that property. How do you make everybody whole and get the water where you think it should go?

HeislerSo you heard from the City of Bend about how there are 30,000 meters out there. They meter it, they measure it, they create incentives, they give you information.

Miller:  And that’s just for tiny taps. We’re talking about brushing your teeth and flushing your toilet?

HeislerIn our senior districts that level of investment hasn’t been made. So there are no meters. We don’t know what people are actually using. And at the local level, we should be investing in that kind of infrastructure to really know. I’ve had irrigation managers tell me, “If I can’t measure it, I can’t manage it.” And then at the state level, we should start defining “beneficial use” and “waste.” Nobody wants to talk about waste. It’s like this bad word.

But we should, together, define those more sharply and then meter and measure the water and say, “Well, maybe waste is now considered to be putting more water on the crop than is the evapotranspiration.” What the crop actually needs. There’d be a number of ways, if you could measure it and create some new standards for what beneficial use is, and then what waste is.

Miller:  How would you do this politically? And where do you think this would be a challenge politically, what you’re describing?

HeislerWell, any piece of legislation that has come, while I’ve worked, to Salem has been struck down because of measurement. It is such a difficult thing to consider doing throughout the State of Oregon.

Miller:  Because it seems like the first step towards restriction? But in a sense, that is literally why you want it, right?

Heisler:  Probably, but it’s also expensive. It seems, to them, really unnecessary. Harney County is really different from Deschutes. So one thing I would do and there is talk of doing this is to create a Deschutes-specific bill that would look at the characteristics of our land use and our water use and come up with something that made sense here, that didn’t force all of the other counties in the state to comply with those kinds of new rules.

Miller:  Tod Heisler, thanks very much.

HeislerThank you, Dave.

Miller:  Tod Heisler is the river’s advocate for Central Oregon LandWatch.

Thanks very much to everybody who has been on stage with me here and in our audience and to Oregon Community Foundation, which has made this solutions-focused series over the last year or so possible.

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