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Think Out Loud

A Drop to Drink

Pete Springer/OPB

So the price of oil keeps climbing, shaping the future of the world and the Northwest. But you can’t drink oil. What about water?

Of the 18 Western states, only Oregon and Alaska have no long term water plan. That?s starting to change; the Oregon Department of Water Resources has just launched an assessment of future water supply and demand. A big part of that is figuring out where water could be stored. Keeping water available during dry months is a key problem. Because of climate change, snowpack is expected to melt and run off faster than it can be used.

There are plenty of players in the game of water rights, particularly farmers, fish, tribes and towns. Urban growth is limited by the availability of water; fish and farms depend on water for survival. We know water involves many issues… one flows into another, as it were. This show — and there will be more on the subject — will take a look at what towns are doing to try to secure a long term supply of water, where they’re bumping up against other interests, and what experiments currently underway might avoid water wars and keep fish and farms alive.

We’ll look at the Portland metro area in the next week or so. Today we’ll hopscotch around other parts of the state. Pendleton draws water off the Umatilla River in the winter, keeping it for summertime use in an underground aquifer that came on line a couple of years ago. The tiny water district of Buell-Red Prairie has a years long waiting list for people who want to get off brackish private wells. A new dam on the Siletz — where an old dam was taken out just twenty years ago - might be their answer. In central Oregon, towns, growers, and environmentalists have created a water bank. As Bend, Redmond, and other towns in the area grow, they are required to mitigate the amount of groundwater used for development by putting water into streams. The water bank (PDF) buys up water rights from former agricultural users and manages water transfers.

Water issues in Oregon are similar in Washington, where an overhaul of water regulations is tied up in court. Tensions over water around the west are long term. All of the efforts to secure more supply for municipalities comes at a price… on the environment and the pocketbook. Water use is governed by a complex system of water rights. Is it time to toss that system out and start over? How would you divide up water for the future?




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