Water Wars

Battles, compromises, and resolutions abound in a state flush with water.

Brett Cole

In the summer of 2001, the bottom-feeding suckerfish sparked a civil war in drought-stricken Oregon that played out across the news and editorial pages of the national press. Farmers, tribes, fishermen, environmentalists, and politicians battled over crimped irrigation in the Klamath Basin as crops withered and salmon died.

A decade later, Oregonians still struggle to establish common ground around water.

In Oregon, water is a publicly owned resource appropriated by the state to users at no cost and in perpetuity as long as the permit holder—whether irrigator, municipality, industry, or mining operation—continues to use it. First come, first served, fully served, until the water runs out. It's a system that historically has overlooked early treaties or promises made to tribes, the benefits of water left in the stream, and the needs of threatened and endangered species.

“Water management is conflict management,” says Aaron Wolf, professor of geography in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. He's studied water issues throughout Oregon and around the world. “We're not talking about tungsten here—water is unique as a resource,” in that it engages the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of life, Wolf says.

In the Pacific Northwest, there is plenty of water—just not in the right places or at the right times, and not always put to the best and highest use. Rivers and streams have been over-committed to legacy rights-holders. Antiquated and wasteful practices, such as open and leaky irrigation canals and ditches, are still prevalent. Attempts to capture and reuse water have become ensnared in cumbersome policies.

Meanwhile, climate change projections for Oregon forecast warmer, drier seasons. Winter snows are shifting to winter rains, reducing the snowpack that provides critical storage and groundwater recharge for spring and summer. Declines in overall precipitation, coupled with increased demand as a result of population and economic growth, make water issues even more prominent.

These challenges embroil agriculture, fish and wildlife, municipalities, cultural traditions, and economic opportunities. Across the state, individuals and organizations continue to wade through these issues in search of solutions.


Water is a fighting word

Kent Madison's grandfather left drought-stricken Missouri in 1914 for Oregon and the promise of land and water. Today, Madison's family farms over seven thousand acres in Eastern Oregon, near the town of Echo on the Umatilla and Morrow County line. Echo receives only a foot or so of total precipitation each year. That limits agriculture either to irrigation or the dryland farming of crops like winter wheat. For the Madison family, the search for water continues.

Kent has a groundwater pump on his property that he is no longer permitted to use because of a declining water table. He also has a stream that runs dry for much of the year. Because he can't count on the rain, Kent generates water from a constant flow of ideas. Often his solutions are more innovative than ideal. Nutrient-rich water from a ConAgra potato processing facility gets reused on the farm, which reduces the amount of fertilizer needed for those crops. But the arrangement is year-round, even in the dead of winter, which means that “we're pumping water when it's 10 degrees outside,” requiring more expensive equipment, says his son Jake, who oversees farm operations.

These farming operations depend on a year-round, fifteen-thousand-gallon-per-minute pumping permit for the Columbia River, which Kent secured in 1989. To irrigate from the Columbia, pumps push river water up some six hundred feet to the farm's elevation. The costs of running these pumps barely pencil out for the farm. State law no longer allows new year-round permits on this portion of the Columbia River because of the potential impact on endangered fish species. Exemptions are possible, theoretically, but no year-round water rights have been issued by Oregon on the Upper Columbia since Madison's.

The farm also collects water from winter floods that can be pumped into the ground, artificially recharging the aquifers. This “artificial recharge” can be used to hold water in the winter until the summer's peak growing season, but the costs of filtering the water, injecting it into the aquifers via the deepwater well, and then pumping it back out months later make the irrigation source impractical except as a supplement.

Kent argues that farmers like him have been unfairly saddled with salmon recovery efforts—an industry with “no incentive” to solve the problem. What direct impact does drawing more water out of the Columbia River have on fish? “What are we mitigating for?”

On less than half of their seventeen thousand acres, the Madisons manage limited water by rotating crops that require intensive watering at different times. The farm employs “deficit irrigation,” for which Jake offers the following analogy: “It's kind of like starving one kid to feed the other.” They constantly and carefully measure soil moisture, assessing how much of the irrigated water remains and how much has been retained by plants.

They lease some of the remaining acreage to cattle ranchers in the Country Natural co-op and a wind energy project that has installed eighteen turbines on the property. But as is true for many farmers in the region, there's plenty of room for more crop circles.

From a desk in his farm office, Jake rattles off economic development numbers underscoring the case for more water. Dryland wheat farming produces forty bushels per acre, grossing $350 per acre, and netting $100. Add an acre-foot of water over the season, and that becomes a hundred bushels of wheat. Two acre-feet of water, and then you're growing hay, grass seed, maybe vegetables, and grossing $1,500 per acre. Add that third foot of water, and the fields are full of potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, or corn, grossing upward of $5,000 per acre.

Craig Reeder of the Oregon Wheat Growers League estimates that a single pivot field of 125 acres (picture the green circles seen from an airplane window) might gross $750,000 for the farmer who sells spuds by the ton to the processor, who then sells by the pound to the retailer, who then sells bags of fries by the ounce. The total supply-chain value of the green in that circle: $24 million. With limited water, however, the Madisons end up growing soft wheat, much of which ships to China.

Jake says, “Growing up, I always heard the expression, ‘Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting for.' Now I know what they were talking about.”


From water springs controversy

In the town of Cascade Locks, on the banks of the Columbia River near Bonneville Dam, winds gust constantly. Wind turbine parts on trucks heading east on Interstate 84 out to Umatilla and Morrow counties are a common sight. Winds also fuel the burgeoning windsurfing industry in nearby Hood River.

For Lance Masters, a high school English and history teacher and mayor of Cascade Locks since 2011, this natural resource could deliver jobs and an economic boost to the tiny burg, population 1,165. The town could become a sailing hub during the summer season, or a center for turbine maintenance workers. “There's no reason why we can't capture the wind as well,” Masters says.

In a town that has been burned one time too many by unfulfilled promises of jobs (case in point: on-again, off-again plans for a casino), Masters remains open to all types of economic development ideas. A group of urban planning students at Portland State University drafted a strategy to expand the town's presence as a recreation hub and a pit stop on the Pacific Crest Trail. Work is under way to connect Cascade Locks to Troutdale via a bike corridor running along portions of the Historic Columbia River Highway.

But it's another natural resource proposal that promises nearly fifty local jobs: Nestlé Waters North America plans to build a $50 million plant in Cascade Locks and bottle water from nearby Oxbow Springs. For a town that has suffered as little more than a roadside attraction beneath the Bridge of the Gods, that's a real economic opportunity.

For the deal to happen, Cascade Locks must trade water rights to half a cubic foot per second (225 gallons per minute) of well water to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has water rights to ten cubic feet per second out of Oxbow Springs. (The department operates a fish hatchery fed by that spring's water, in which it raises endangered Snake River sockeye salmon.)

This water-swap, tentatively approved by the Oregon Water Resources Department, has been appealed by Food & Water Watch, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, the mission of which is to “ensure the food, water, and fish we consume is safe, accessible, and sustainable.” An ad hoc collective of citizens and environmentalists, called Keep Nestlé Out of the Gorge, has also petitioned Governor John Kitzhaber to stop the transfer.

The city owns its electric, water, and sewer utilities, and provides well water to its residents and businesses. “Having a customer who's a big consumer of utilities is a net benefit,” says Masters. So why not sell Nestlé the well water like everyone else?

“Its customers prefer spring water,” Masters says.

In late June 2012, 150 people gathered in downtown Portland to protest Nestlé's plans to “privatize” public water. Their pledge to continue their fight included an August 1 protest in Cascade Locks, part of a fifty-mile run to raise awareness about Nestle's plans.

Masters understands the group's objections. A company like Nestlé makes it easy for people to “tap into that anti-corporate sentiment,” he says. And the arguments against bottled water in general—wasteful and unnecessary production of more plastic garbage—aren't lost on him either.

“I believe people have the right to share input if that's what they want,” Masters says. But the opposition, fueled by Food & Water Watch's ongoing battle with Nestlé, doesn't reflect the attitudes of community residents. In Cascade Locks, Masters says, “There's overwhelming support for this—or any economic development.”


Bring back the river

In the late 1970s, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation resolved to bring salmon back to the Umatilla River, an eighty-nine-mile tributary of the Columbia River in northeast Oregon. To do so, they first needed water.

Salmon runs that the tribes had fished for generations disappeared along with the water when farmers tapped the Umatilla River for irrigation in the 1920s. Subsequent damming of the Columbia River and other tributaries for hydropower and agriculture inundated tribal fishing grounds, such as those at Celilo Falls, while blocking fish passage back to spawning and rearing grounds. Hatcheries mandated by Congress to offset declining fish runs were built downstream from tribal fishing areas—only two of the twenty-five built were installed above The Dalles Dam, one hundred miles downstream from the mouth of the Umatilla.

Even as fish disappeared, states attempted to restrict the tribes' claims to off-reservation fishing rights. But in 1969, a U.S. District Court ruling by Judge Robert Belloni (United States v. Oregon) held that tribes were entitled to a fair and equitable share of fish in the Columbia River; a 1974 ruling by Judge George Boldt clarified that to mean a fifty-fifty split of “harvestable” fish destined for traditional tribal fishing areas. These rulings upheld the Columbia River tribes' fishing treaties of 1855 with the United States, in which 6.4 million acres of land claims in eastern Oregon and Washington were ceded in exchange for hunting, fishing, and harvesting rights.

Kathryn “Kat” Brigham, who is of Cayuse heritage, is a tribal elder and secretary to the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation's board of trustees. This year, she was appointed chair of the influential Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents interests of the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Warm Springs tribes and which she helped found thirty-five years ago.

As a young girl, Brigham learned from her grandfather, a tribal leader, the importance of protecting treaty rights for the tribe's future generations. When the tribes began to make plans to restore the Umatilla in the 1970s, she tried to persuade tribal leadership that the way forward was through the force of litigation, rather than the spirit of collaboration, saying, “Nobody is going to say, ‘Here's your water for your fish.'”

But over the years, Brigham became an advocate for collaborative approaches, forming partnerships with tribes, local municipalities, and other agencies to manage natural resources. “We're not going anywhere, and you guys aren't either,” she says, “so let's find some solutions and a process that works.”

And so, tribes and farmers found a common—if not entirely satisfactory—ground in irrigation and salmon restoration. Through the Umatilla Basin Project developed in the 1980s, they worked out a deal that gave irrigation districts access to Columbia River water in exchange for Umatilla River water. Together they navigated political and environmental issues to see the project through to Congressional action and federal funding. And in 1994, salmon returned to the Umatilla River for the first time in seven decades.

Today on the Umatilla reservation, tribal government business takes place in the Nixyaawii Governance Center, which opened just three years ago—a beautiful one-hundred-thousand-square-foot facility that's a far cry from the trailers and gymnasiums where meetings once were held. Back up the hill toward the Interstate 84 exchange is the Wildhorse Resort & Casino, the engine fueling this modest prosperity, remodeled and expanded in 2011.

Tribal enrollment has doubled to nearly three thousand members since the casino opened in 1994. Since then, the number of people employed by the tribal government and other enterprises has grown from 337 to 1,734, and its annual operating budget has ballooned from not quite $10 million to $236 million.

The Confederated Tribes of Umatilla can now put some financial heft into funding their own cultural and environmental restoration initiatives. At Meacham Creek, an Umatilla River feeder, the tribe has used historic photos to transform a straight, fast-flowing stream back to a slower, meandering channel with more vegetation, creating cooler, cleaner water that is more conducive to fish habitat and that stays in the area longer. “We're seeing some wells come back. We're seeing the land become itself again,” Brigham says.

In the springtime, Brigham's family fishes for itself, ensuring that they and their relatives have enough put away for the year. In the fall they fish commercially. Multiple generations work together to harvest, fillet, wash, clean, dry, and preserve the fish. Brigham's five-year-old great-granddaughter adds the salt to the jars before they are closed and submerged into the pressure cooker. Fishing, says Brigham, “has held families together for a very long time.”


Rogue dambuster

Five miles east of Grants Pass on the Rogue River, Savage Rapids Dam served as a final, stubborn barrier between boats, salmon, steelhead, and the Pacific Ocean 107 miles downstream.

Built in 1921 by the Grants Pass Irrigation District, the 39-foot-tall, 456-foot-long dam diverted water to the district's agricultural customers. By the 1980s, its fish passage facilities were out of date and at times impassable for returning salmon and steelhead. The dam produced no hydropower, nor did it offer flood control or any of the other benefits associated with dams.

Around this time, the Oregon Water Resources Department reassessed the district's water right, issued in 1929 to irrigate 18,392 acres, and found it watering only 7,738 acres. The state reduced the amount of water the district could divert from the Rogue; the irrigators applied for more.

Bob Hunter, an attorney and flyfisherman, saw the irrigation district's water right application as a legal opening needed to take down the dam. He teamed up with WaterWatch, a conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring stream flows and creating healthier rivers. Leading what would eventually become a cavalcade of environmental and outdoor advocates and agencies in the dam-removal charge, WaterWatch protested the irrigation district's application in 1988, setting in motion two decades of battles and setbacks in what would be one of the largest dam removal projects in the nation's history.

Removing a dam would prove to be no easy feat. Even today, dams are powerful symbols of nature brought to heel. “Dams were part of what won and developed the West,” says Hunter. “I was naive,” Hunter says. “I thought that the dam would come down a lot faster.”

Dam supporters stoked anti-government and anti-environmental sentiments still simmering from the state's timber wars of the 1980s, with salmon standing in as the new spotted owls. Removing the dam was akin to a water-grab. (Hunter also notes that some irrigation district board members either owned or had ties to owners of land downstream, a quiet cul-de-sac unpolluted by excessive recreation and protected by the dam.)

A study commissioned in 1990 by WaterWatch as a condition to a temporary water permit was completed in 1994. It recommended replacing the Savage Rapids Dam with water pumps. The Grants Pass Irrigation District agreed to remove the dam, and the state extended its conditional, reduced water-right permit.

But in 1995, the irrigation district balked and lobbied Grants Pass resident Brady Adams for support. (That same year, a Bureau of Reclamation report confirmed that removal of the dam was the most cost-effective solution to fish passage needs.) Adams, who had been elected president of the Oregon senate, introduced legislation in Salem that would preserve the dam, calling it “the most important issue facing the state of Oregon.” Adams's bill passed but was vetoed by Governor Kitzhaber. Instead, a task force was formed to study the issue further, and WaterWatch secured a spot on the committee.

In 1998, following years of delays and flip-flops on the issue, a listing of Rogue River coho salmon as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, and the threat of state and federal legal action, the Grants Pass Irrigation District lost its water permit. Legal bills topping $1 million threatened to bankrupt the district, and, by then, 63 percent of its members had voted in favor of dam removal anyway.

Hunter and WaterWatch led negotiations that resulted in a federal consent decree in 2001 requiring the district to seek funding for dam removal and establishing a 2005 deadline for the dam to be breached. Millions in funding from state, federal, and nonprofit sources followed. In 2006, a contract for a new pumping plant and dam removal was awarded, and in 2009, irrigation began without dam-diverted water. In October of that year, the Savage Rapids Dam came down, allowing for free passage of fish and boats for the first time since 1921.

As the Savage Rapids dam fell, so did the Rogue River dams at Gold Hill (2008) and Gold Ray (2010), and the Elk Creek Dam on a Rogue tributary (notched in 2008). Thinking had changed from how to salvage these economically obsolete structures to how their removal could create economic and environmental benefits. Through support and pressure, Hunter and WaterWatch played a critical role in freeing the Rogue.

Had Hunter known at the outset how long it the process would take, he says, “I might have lost interest. But we just kept taking on each new challenge, and we kept moving forward.”

Earlier this year, Bob Hunter spent eight days on the Rogue, floating the 157 miles from Lost Creek Dam to the Pacific Ocean. “It was really great to see the whole river stretch in one float.”


Mediating solutions

“In the West, where water is concerned,” writes Marc Reisner in Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, “logic and reason have never figured prominently in the scheme of things.”

Although Reisner was writing mostly about Colorado and California, the sentiment can apply to Oregon's own history with water. But hope, if not water, springs eternal, with signs that innovative, collaborative approaches to water issues continue to gain ground.

Todd Jarvis studies water disputes and resolutions at Oregon State University, where is interim director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds. Early in his career he worked as a hydrogeologist, “but I couldn't figure out why everyone was mad—mad at water, mad at me.”

Jarvis singles out groundwater systems as an area of looming complications. In contrast to surface water, groundwater follows its own complex geological and geographical boundaries. It defies human-imposed regulations such as land rights, and exudes spiritual and mystical properties across cultures and continents. People aren't heading to Yellowstone National Park for the moose and trees, says Jarvis. The hot springs are the draw.

In the western United States and Canada there are millions of unregulated wells that circumvent existing water rights, even as they draw down deepwater storage to support households, livestock, and businesses. States lack solid information about the location and numbers of these wells, the amount of water in use, and even the aquifers that supply them.

Jarvis walks his students through hypothetical conflicts in watersheds, mixing in challenges like dams, flooding, restoration needs, and shared groundwater. He's clear that the goal is to negotiate solutions that work for everyone, not to make everyone happy. Ultimately this approach has worked well in Oregon. “People listen to ideas here,” Jarvis says. They may not always agree, but if you've got an idea, “We'll listen to it.”

In Oregon, watershed councils consist of volunteers representing a balance of interested parties in the region. Together, they take a ground-floor approach to identifying common challenges and potential solutions. It's the opposite of a top-down, unilateral approach that picks winners and losers, which is how many saw the timber wars of the 1980s and '90s. Liz Redon, a consultant working with North Santiam Watershed Council, says, “It's a very Oregon approach—let us solve our own problems.”

Just this year, the Oregon Water Resources Department, working with agencies representing fish and wildlife, agriculture, and environmental quality, developed an integrated water resources strategy for the state that attempts to set a framework for resolving issues facing farmers, tribes, environmentalists, and other stakeholders, balancing in-stream and out-of-stream needs. Until now, Oregon has been one of two states in the West without such a strategy.

At the direction of Governor Kitzhaber, agencies working with industry and citizens are tackling Eastern Oregon's Columbia River water withdrawal issues, convening key players, building on the Umatilla Basin Project's model and relationships, and looking for solutions with a net environmental and economic benefit.

Other groups, such as the Freshwater Trust, the Deschutes River Conservancy, and Willamette Partnership, are piloting water markets (similar to carbon markets), which may help finance the benefits of a healthy ecosystem, such as clean water.

James Honey has worked in the Klamath Basin during the past decade as a program manager for Sustainable Northwest. He believes that starting at the local level is the right approach, but also recommends starting small, “with low stakes,” so parties can learn how to work together and gain trust with each other.

It's not easy work, but the alternative is “sheer war, where the biggest entities trump and win,” Honey says. And that kind of zero-sum game is a false promise because when it comes to protecting water, “No matter how powerless… they're going to go down fighting hard.”

Though today's issues may take decades to resolve, most believe these collaborative approaches work. “Imagine who is in the room—people who are diametrically opposed, talking about things they care most about,” OSU's Aaron Wolf says. “Yet they do get together to resolve it.”

In the Rogue River Valley, a group called Water for Irrigation, Streams and Economy, representing nearly twenty different organizations, has begun planning to install pipes into three hundred miles of century-old irrigation canals, which can lose up to 25 percent of water to seepage. These open ditches serve three irrigation districts and intersect with numerous streams and habitats. The proposed work would increase stream flows and water quality while improving irrigation.

“In fifteen years this will be a success story,” says Jim Jacks, project manager for the Oregon Solutions program at Portland State University, which is facilitating the planning process. “And in forty years people won't know why—they'll just know the system works.”


Civic Life, Environment, History, Natural resources, Oregon, Politics, Power


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