Judging by the sheer number of irrigation pivots sprawled across fields from Hermiston to Boardman, J.R. Cook can understand how some people might get the wrong impression.
“When people drive around this area and see all these pivots, they think, ‘Gosh, they don’t have much of a water problem around here,’” Cook said.
In reality, many pivots sit dormant for an entire season — and whole fields are left dry — while most of the farm’s water is concentrated onto relatively few acres for growing potatoes, onions and other high-value vegetables. The alternative for farmers is spreading out a minimum amount of water to push up a less needy but less profitable crop, like wheat or grass seed.
There simply aren’t enough water supplies to put more ground into full production, Cook said. Everybody in the Umatilla Basin is short on water, leaving potentially billions of dollars on the table for the region’s agriculture economy.
Cook, who formed the Northeast Oregon Water Association in August 2013, believes his organization may finally be on to a short- and long-term solution for the area’s decades-old water woes. Their proposal aims to strike a win-win balance among historically competing interests, providing additional water for irrigators while targeting projects upstream to benefit fisheries and wildlife.
More water from the Columbia River also means farms would rely less on groundwater resources, allowing badly stressed basalt aquifers the chance to recharge.
“We’ve already seen what we can do economically,” Cook said. “The state and society also want us to improve cultural and community sustainability, which is basically fixing the sins of our fathers.”
The problems of the past are simple, Cook said. Development across the basin led to over-allocating native water supplies, which created an unsustainable pattern of competition between growing cities, industries and their agricultural base.
The challenge for NOWA is to secure new water rights that can help reverse the trend and boost local agriculture to its full potential. Cook, who has worked on the water issue for 13 years, believes this organization has the right makeup to get the job done.
“This is the time to make something happen,” Cook said. “I believe that, this time, we have a firm enough base of leaders and resources for us to actually move forward.”
NOWA is now working with the Oregon Water Resources Department and Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office to secure three new water rights totaling an additional 500 cubic feet per second out of the Columbia River.
Phase I of the permits would allow 180 cfs pumped right away as a catalyst for the project. The remaining water would be granted if the state and NOWA can agree on a plan to restore upstream fish habit and maintain healthy river flows.
One cubic foot per second of water is equal to roughly 450 gallons per minute. If all 500 cfs is approved by the state, it could mean putting up to 200,000 acres of farmland into full production.
To deliver that water, NOWA is designing a pipeline that would use existing river infrastructure to pump into three critical groundwater areas during peak summertime irrigation season. Building the pipeline will cost between $60 and $80 million, Cook said, depending on the final size and scope of the design.
The entire project is divided into three areas, spanning about 40 miles of the Columbia River from the Port of Morrow to east of Hermiston. The east area pipeline will begin around the Highway 730 and Highway 37 interchange, and run south to the top of the hill and the Stage Gulch critical groundwater area.
The center pipeline is slated west of Umatilla and south into the Westland Irrigation District and county line improvement area. The west pipeline will start at the Port of Morrow and drop southeast into the southern reaches of Butter Creek. Each area will ultimately spin off under local control to manage its own individual systems.
NOWA would administer the water rights, supplying water where it is needed in each critical groundwater area. Members are providing feedback about their needs, where they would like to access water off the pipeline and how much they can contribute to building the infrastructure.
A survey is available for water users on the Umatilla County Soil and Water Conservation District website, www.umatillacountyswcd.com.
The economic benefits of the project are obvious, Cook said. Farmers have already demonstrated the basin is one of the best in the world for growing irrigated vegetables, with its hot days, cool nights and soft, sandy soil.
Umatilla and Morrow counties ranked second and third in statewide farm and ranch sales in 2012, with $487 million and $482 million, respectively. And the more water that's available, the more farmers stand to earn from higher value crops.
Dryland wheat, grown without irrigation, produces about $100 per acre. Add one acre foot of water, and it jumps to $500 per acre. Two acre feet lets farmers grow hay and some vegetables at $1,500 per acre, and a third acre foot allows high-value crops in full rotation at $5,000-plus per acre.
In order to secure new water and build its pipeline, NOWA will need to come up with a plan to show it isn’t causing any further damage to the river. The group is pursuing $20-$60 million in state assistance for restoration projects in upstream tributaries as part of the proposal, which is expected to be a major item heading into the 2015 Legislature.
Projects up for consideration include repairing Wallowa Dam near Joseph and constructing a new storage reservoir in Juniper Canyon. Recharging underground aquifers would also contribute to the net benefit of the project.
Funding for the pipeline would come from a combination of public and private funding from NOWA members, which include more than 50 municipalities, ports and farms. A survey provided on the Umatilla County Soil and Water Conservation District website gauges what growers want out of the project, and how much they are willing to share in its cost.
More water, more growth
Craig Reeder, chief financial officer of Hale Farms in Echo, serves as the NOWA board chairman. The water rights would cover most of the region’s water users, all of its irrigation districts and all critical groundwater areas, Reeder said.
Water will be divided based on users’ needs, and how they fit into the overall proposal. They can also work through their irrigation districts, which are sharing in the cost to build infrastructure, Reeder said.
“I haven’t run into anybody who’s not supportive of this,” Reeder said. “It’s a huge benefit, with a lot of zeroes behind it. There’s a lot of real potential.”
Gary Neal, general manager of the Port of Morrow in Boardman and a NOWA board member, said the opportunity is also there to help food processors at the port grow and sustain their operations into the future.
ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston will finish a $200 million expansion of its facility in May. That will increase capacity to produce more than a billion pounds of finished product per year, which Neal said makes it the largest french fry processing site in the world.
“We want to continue to strive to increase the agricultural opportunities in our region. That’s what we’re about,” Neal said. “(The proposal) is good for diversity. It touches our agricultural economy, and helps our businesses already here maintain good long-term viability.”
Making it happen
Legislatively, Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, is prepared to help put a thoughtful proposal before lawmakers next year. In order to be successful, all aspects of the proposal will have to be in balance to appeal to everyone in the state.
“The approach isn’t going to be just about more water, but how do we manage water more efficiently and effectively for all users,” Smith said. “The pressure is on me to get the support in Salem to make this happen.”
The group’s financial request will come through the House Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Capital Construction, of which Smith is co-chair.
“This will be a priority piece of legislation for me,” Smith said. “It will require everyone to move to the middle. When I legislate, that’s my approach.”
The biggest obstacle, Cook said, is making sure everyone stays unified behind this one effort.
“If we splinter, then we’ve lost the chance to fix these problems,” Cook said. “You only get one chance to do a project like this.”