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Thu 10:36 a.m.: Drought haves, have-nots test how to share water in the West

Phil Fine checks for carrot seeds in the soil left behind by a combine while harvesting a field in the North Unit Irrigation District in August, near Madras, Ore. Oregon farmers who grow 60 percent of the world's carrot seed have been without irrigation water for weeks as drought ravages the American West. But just down the road, sprinklers douse crops and cattle graze in green pastures. The stark contrast is a consequence of the West's arcane water law, and it's brought new urgency to efforts to share the resource along Oregon's Deschutes River. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

MADRAS, Ore. (AP) — Phil Fine stands in a parched field and watches a harvester gnaw through his carrot seed crop, spitting clouds of dust in its wake. Cracked dirt lines empty irrigation canals, and dust devils and tumbleweeds punctuate a landscape in shades of brown.

Across an invisible line separating Fine’s irrigation district from the next, it’s another world. Automated sprinklers hiss as they douse crops, cattle munch on green grass and water bubbles through verdant farmland.

In this swath of central Oregon, where six irrigation districts rely on the Deschutes River, the consequences of the strict hierarchy dictated by the American West’s arcane water law — “first in time, first in right” — are written on the land. As drought ravages the West, the districts with century-old water claims are first in line for the scarce resource while others nearby with more recent claims have already run out.

“It’s like the Wizard of Oz. … It’s shocking the difference,” said Matt Lisignoli, a farmer who got nearly five times more water on his land in one irrigation district than on fields in another.

“I’ve learned more about water in the last two months than I have in the last 20 years, because it’s always been here,” he said. “You don’t know until you get in a bind.”

The stark contrast between the haves and have-nots two hours southeast of Portland has brought new urgency to efforts to share water. Proposals to create “water banks” or “water markets” would allow farmers with excess supply to lease it to those in need. The idea is part of a discussion about letting the free market play a bigger role in water conservation as human-caused climate change fuels drought and farmers run out of options.

Yet the concept is fraught with risks and resistance. Larger-scale efforts to spread water more equitably have been uneven. Along the Deschutes River, where every drop is accounted for, many farmers worry that if they lease their water rights, even temporarily, they may not get them back.

“Whether it’s feasible or not is a very local question,” said Brett Bovee of WestWater Research, a consulting firm for water market research.

Many Western water markets compensate farmers for diverting water to wildlife and cities instead of fields. Far fewer avenues get water to farmers, and the biggest challenge is moving it between irrigation districts, said Scott Revell, manager of the Roza Irrigation District in Washington state’s Yakima Valley.

The districts oversee water deliveries to customers and often operate as fiefdoms, each with water claims and history. Outdated infrastructure and bureaucracy — often compounded by rigid state laws — make water transfers difficult even between cooperating districts.

In central Oregon, for example, Lisignoli wanted to take irrigation from his farmland in a district with senior water rights and transfer it to parched crops he grows in a neighboring district with lesser rights.

Lisignoli’s application had to be approved by both districts and Oregon’s water agency, which required an 11-day public notice period, he said.

Desperate, he purchased emergency water from a vineyard for $2,700, but water in that district ran out last month. He hasn’t watered 16 acres of pumpkins in weeks and hopes they will survive for Halloween sales.

“It was a futile effort,” he said. “But I’m hoping that it shows the flaws in the system.”

California, meanwhile, has one of the most flexible water markets in the West, allowing irrigation districts to move water where it’s most needed. After a major drought in the 1970s, lawmakers made transfers easier and emphasized that leasing water wouldn’t jeopardize rights, said Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.

Once a farmer has a transfer approved, renewing it is expedited and in many cases, water can follow demand without a lengthy environmental review, she said.

In central Oregon, water-sharing is a charged topic.

The 960 farmers in the North Unit Irrigation District, which has the area’s lowest-ranking water rights, grow 60 percent of the world’s carrot seed, bound for carrot farmers or seed packets.

Districts with senior rights, meanwhile, tend toward hobby farms with llamas and alpacas, cattle pastures and hay fields. Those farmers have had to cut back for the first time but are still receiving 55 percent of their water.

The water disparity is compounded by efforts to preserve the federally protected Oregon spotted frog. A habitat conservation plan requires the North Unit district to release water for the frog from its storage reservoir over three decades.

That reservoir, which is filled by the Deschutes River, is almost empty, with once-submerged tree stumps jutting from cracked mudflats.

Other irrigation districts also gave up water for the frog, but “North Unit definitely got the short end of the stick,” general manager Josh Bailey said. “It made our situation being the junior water rights holder … even worse.”

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