Conflicts and Crises
Low pressure irrigation sprinklers
Thoughts on Water
Rick Bastasch, author, lifelong Oregonian and water expert, comments on the issues and options.
Finding Solutions
Everyone in Oregon will be affected by a change in the state's approach to water use and management. So how will we resolve the financial, environmental and social dilemmas at the core of the conflicts? How can the system be altered to provide the greatest good for our state as a whole? Is it possible to serve the needs of all stakeholders? Is it reasonable to hope that everyone might give a little, so that no one is asked to give everything?
This section considers some of the many possible solutions and weighs the relative pros and cons of each option. Each of these models is already being used in at least one drought-stricken state. None of the choices described here will provide a single, complete solution. But perhaps a combination of approaches will yield a workable compromise.
Buy More Water
Change the Law
Get "New" Water
Negotiate "Treaties"
Raise the Price
Recharge the Aquifers
Restrict Development
Restrict Water Use
Reward "Good" Behavior
Make Water a Market Commodity
Use Less Hydropower
Use Water More Than Once
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Solution 1: Buy More Water
Several states simply buy more water from other states or move water from wet parts of the state to dry parts.
  • Overall supply could be increased.
  • Supply could be negotiated in advance, at a fixed price.
  • Costs for building pipelines and other infrastructure could be huge. The cost of buying water would be high. These costs would have to be passed on to the users.
  • Western Oregon is on the verge of drought. As the population in western Oregon grows, there probably won't be enough "extra" water to sell to eastern Oregon.
  • Neighboring states are facing their own water shortages.
  • Even if other states sell water to Oregon, nature might make it impossible to fulfill the supply contracts.
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Solution 2: Change the Law
Perhaps we should "start from scratch" and write a more effective system of laws with more environmental safeguards and fewer legal loopholes.
  • Problems with the existing system of rights could be eliminated.
  • Modern-day usage patterns and projected population growth could be accommodated in the new laws.
  • Mandated solutions to social issues rarely succeed.
  • The holders of older water rights, many of them irrigators, would lose their legal privileges. This would surely result in court challenges.
  • The new water law would probably generate new problems. Most laws are amended in ways that create new loopholes and exemptions. The overall result might not be any better than the system that already exists.
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Solution 3: Get "New" Water
If demand can't be controlled, then the supply side of the equation might hold an answer. Increasing the available quantity of water (by drilling additional wells or adding reservoirs with greater storage capacity) would solve several problems.
  • All stakeholders would have the water they want and need.
  • Conflicts could be averted.
  • New reservoirs would increase recreational opportunities for Oregonians.
  • New wells would accelerate the drawdown of Oregon's groundwater. The supply problem would be postponed, but not eliminated.
  • New reservoirs are enormously expensive to build and operate. There are also environmental costs associated with damming rivers.
  • Most of the "good" spots for building dams are already in use. Engineering at new sites could be extremely difficult and dangerous.
  • A reservoir typically floods thousands of acres. Who would be asked to move? And how would they be compensated?
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Solution 4: Negotiate "Treaties" with Other Users
By opening a dialogue among all stakeholders, it may be possible to negotiate water-use agreements that will give the greatest benefit to the widest number of people.
  • The severity of Oregon's water problem is likely to encourage most stakeholders to join negotiations.
  • Everyone will have a chance to express needs and concerns.
  • Water treaties have been used for nearly 5,000 years in other parts of the world. With one exception, treaties have always prevented outright war.
  • Cooperation would be essential. If self-interests are allowed to rule, the negotiations would probably fail.
  • The negotiations would require multiple sessions, and hearings could last for years.
  • The approach would require a respected moderator with final authority to make decisions. It could be hard to find a person that all stakeholders trust.
  • Oregon's tribal groups might distrust this approach from the outset, given that existing water treaties have rarely been honored.
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Solution 5: Raise the Price
If the cost of water goes up, people might be more careful about how they use it.
  • Everyone could pay an equal percentage, whether the water is used for domestic, industrial, agricultural or commercial purposes.
  • Prices could be adjusted to reflect the water supply, going up in drought years and down in years with a plentiful supply.
  • Extra revenue from water payments could be used to study Oregon's water problems more carefully and/or build new storage facilities.
  • Many Oregonians can't afford energy to keep their homes warm in winter. How would they absorb the additional cost for water? A subsidy program and other administrative systems would be needed.
  • Water-intensive industries, such as aluminum and semiconductor manufacturers, might be forced to close or move out of the state. Either way, Oregon could suffer a major economic blow.
  • Irrigators would bear more of the financial burden than any other single group.
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Solution 6: Recharge the Aquifers
As the supply of surface water dwindles, Oregon's underground aquifers are being emptied faster than nature can replace the withdrawals. Recharging would take water from an existing source (such as the Columbia) and inject the water into special wells, replenishing groundwater more rapidly than nature can recharge the supply.
  • Water would essentially be stored underground for future use. This would help to stabilize supply during dry and wet seasons.
  • All well-users could benefit, including public water suppliers, irrigators and homeowners.
  • Recharging would be most effective in eastern Oregon. This would still leave western Oregon without a solution.
  • Infrastructure costs would be large. Pumping water from the Columbia to recharge wells would require extensive pipelines.
  • If too much water is withdrawn from the Columbia (or similar sources), downstream users could face new shortages.
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Solution 7: Restrict Development
New residents and businesses will increase the demand for water. By halting growth, we can stop demand from increasing any more.
  • Oregon has an established system for regulating urban growth.
  • A ban on new development wouldn't cost anything (with the probable exception of court challenges).
  • If people understand that development has been halted because water supply is a serious problem, perhaps Oregonians will be more interested in water conservation.
  • Lawsuits are highly probable.
  • Property tax revenues will be effectively capped - adding to the state's financial woes.
  • Businesses currently located in Oregon may begin relocating to states with friendlier attitudes about economic expansion. The Oregon economy could actually begin to shrink, with a subsequent loss of jobs and income tax revenues.
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Solution 8: Restrict Water Use
If the supply of water can't be increased, perhaps demand should be forcibly decreased.
  • Water rationing would be an inexpensive method for reducing overall water use.
  • Everyone could be asked to share the burden equally, including industrial, agricultural and commercial users.
  • Restrictions could be imposed only when water shortages are severe.
  • Rationing is difficult to coordinate and regulate. For example, some cities don't allow homeowners to water their lawns on even-numbered days. This restricts the time of use — but not the overall quantity.
  • Some people will violate a restriction or outright ban. A system of punishing violators would be required. This would increase the burden on Oregon's courts.
  • If a flat-rate restriction is applied to everyone (e.g., a 10% reduction of the water used in the prior year), a homeowner might be inconvenienced, but a farmer could be financially ruined.
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Solution 9: Reward "Good" Behavior
We could raise the cost of water and provide financial incentives for wise water use. Price rebates could be offered to users that conserve a certain percentage. Users could also be offered tax credits for investing in water reuse or recycling facilities.
  • Everyone would have an opportunity to choose the amount of money they want to spend and the amount of water they use.
  • Rebates and credits would be offset by an overall increase in water revenues.
  • Irrigators might benefit immediately, and in the long-term, if rebates or credits are offered for construction of pipelines and similar infrastructure improvements that can reduce water conveyance losses.
  • Program administration would be difficult and require more changes in the tax code.
  • Companies that can't or won't invest in new water technologies might decide to leave Oregon, damaging the state's economy.
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Solution 10: Make Water a Market Commodity
Market forces would naturally stabilize water supply and demand if water "banking" and the trade of water rights were allowed.
  • People could buy as much water as they want.
  • Prices would fluctuate with market supply and demand.
  • People who give up water (or rights) would be fairly compensated.
  • This system would primarily affect large users, such as irrigators, manufacturers and public waterworks. While irrigators and industry could adjust their product prices to reflect the cost of water, cities would have a harder time managing the costs.
  • Someone would have to regulate the banking and trading to ensure that monopolies or racketeering wouldn't develop.
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Solution 11: Use Less Hydropower
If less water is spilled to generate electricity, it could be held until needed for irrigation and other purposes.
  • Water flow could be reduced, thus increasing the amount of stored water.
  • Oregon only gets half of its electricity from hydropower, down from 90% just a few decades ago. A 20% decrease in hydropower generation would result in a mere 10% reduction in the overall electricity supply.
  • Hydropower is still one of the cleanest and cheapest forms of electricity.
  • Other types of power plants cause air and water pollution - and most plants use water to turn steam-driven turbines.
  • It would be expensive to build new power plants and transmission lines, resulting in increased energy costs.
  • Many of the state's driest regions, such as the Klamath Basin, are far from existing hydropower dams that could be saving water. Moving available water to the places of greatest need would be difficult and expensive.
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Solution 12: Use Water More Than Once
Most water that leaves wastewater-treatment plants is dumped back into rivers. While this water may not be suitable for drinking, it could be made available for reuse in other ways. Should we design wastewater-treatment plants to recycle our wastewater?
  • The limited supply of water would be extended. For example, if good-quality water is currently used to irrigate golf courses, we could substitute recycled water and divert the cleaner water to other users.
  • Capital investments in treatment and redistribution systems could be extremely expensive on a cost-per-gallon basis.
  • It could be difficult to persuade citizens that "reused water" is safe for people and the environment. Many people could be reluctant to use the water or to eat food grown with reused water.
  • In rural areas, where demand for irrigation water is greatest, the amount of water recycled through public wastewater plants would add very little to the overall water supply.