PORTLAND, Ore. –- The lack of water for both farmers and fish is a problem that’s plagued the arid West for years.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber wants to try a possible solution in the Umatilla Basin, where water would be withdrawn from the Columbia River during the winter and store it underground so it’s there to meet irrigation need months later.
The proposal was highlighted Monday at the 10th Annual Oregon Leadership Summit, where farmers and environmentalists talked about what’s being done.
In some areas of the Umatilla Basin, aquifers have dropped 500 feet since the 1970s. But some farmers and environmentalists say they’ve come up with a better way to manage the area’s water supply.
At the summit, Craig Reeder likened the situation to a story by Dr. Seuss, in which the Lorax decries the over-cutting of trees by a character known as the Once-ler.
“At the end of the day, I don’t want to be the Once-ler. Oregon’s natural resource development and natural resource use over time, I think is safe to say, has been overzealous at times,” said Reeder, vice president of Hale Farms.
An initiative would draw water out of the Columbia River in the winter, when fish don’t need it. That water would replenish aquifers then be used to irrigate crops in the spring and summer.
Environmentalists and farmers have worked together to start the initiative. Joe Whitworth is the president of conservation group The Freshwater Trust. He says the project will benefit endangered salmon by keeping more water in smaller tributaries.
“The most powerful voice for change, on the agricultural side, is going to come from a son of agriculture. [Reeder’s] going to turn around and say, ‘Hey, generation before me, I understand how you did it, I understand why you did it, but that doesn’t work going forward.’
“And I have to do the same thing on the conservation side. Say, ‘Look, we’ve gone a generation now of saying: no, no, no, no, no. And we have 28 listed species, and none of them are on a track for recovery.’ We have to do more than say no.”
The initiative has faced pushback from farmers and environmentalists. But Reeder says the issue isn’t as polarized as it may seem.
He says the project will have to work with Washington and Canada to make “wholesale changes” on the Columbia River system.
On a smaller scale, Reeder says, the project isn’t one-size-fits-all basins. Some portions could apply to other basins – like the Tillamook or Rogue – but the details will have to be flexible.
“It’s not going to be anything quick and easy. But we’re dedicating resources on a specific issue, and we’re going to come up with some specific projects that, at the end of the day, are going to have a net environmental benefit,” Reeder said.
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