Use it or lose it?
November 18, 2021 | View PDF
Our rivers are a powerhouse for every living thing. But for how long? With high demand for water and most of Oregon experiencing drought amid a warming climate, the future of our rivers is threatened. This year, the Deschutes River experienced the lowest period of natural flow since irrigation districts began using Wickiup Reservoir to store water in 1949.
In addition to water supply becoming less reliable over time, we also have the inflexible legal tangle that is Western water law — which varies state by state. Western water law is anchored by the principle of prior appropriations, meaning the first person to obtain a right (senior priority) is the last to be shut off in times of shortage, and they are entitled to every drop of their water before any goes to the next priority date in line. This continues until all water is used.
Water rights in the West are complicated and have very old, deep roots. Western water law began in the mining camps of the Gold Rush circa the 1850s.
Prospectors had to stake a claim for their mine and the water necessary to operate it. The ‘prior appropriations doctrine’ is at the heart of water laws locked into place at that time. More water rights were handed out than was available in streams, which coupled with persistent drought has compounded the shortages we see now.
Since the Gold Rush, populations have exploded, industries have grown, and agriculture has boomed. This growth has hit hard in arid central Oregon. In Deschutes County, 2021 has been the fourth-driest year in 127 years, and nine of the past 20 years have experienced some level of severe to exceptional drought.
Senior water rights near Bend received water all irrigation season, while over 50,000 acres of productive agriculture lands near Madras had to turn their water off in August due to lack of supply. Oregon’s rivers also have junior water rights and suffer more during times of shortage; leaving little to no flow to support fish and natural habitats unless it is protected by leasing and other conservation projects.
Water supply constraints and the need for collaboration in addressing watershed-level challenges are driving the creation and operation of water markets around the Western U.S., facilitating the reshaping of existing water rights. In many places water rights are “use it or lose it,” but these water markets create new opportunities to lease or share water without losing rights. Leasing water at a stream level is the simplest form of the market, but it can also be used to share water to support ecosystems, agriculture, and community growth. The Deschutes River Conservancy started a water leasing program over 20 years ago and is collaborating to develop a broader water marketplace. Corporate and community investments are integral to developing markets and incentivizing flow restoration.
Intel partnered with the DRC in 2018 to support water leasing. Through grants, Intel has made the longest-term commitment to support the DRC’s lease program to date. “Intel has focused on sustainability for decades because it is important to our communities, the environment, and our business. We have committed to be ‘net positive’ water by 2030 through conserving water in our operations, returning water that we use to our communities, and restoring water to our watersheds, at amounts greater than our freshwater use,” says Fawn Bergen, corporate sustainability manager for Intel. “The success of this program starts with working with the right partners — they are the experts that develop and implement these projects. This is why we work with non-profits like the DRC.”
To date, Intel has funded seven projects in Oregon to help restore water to the McKenzie, Willamette, Tualatin, and Deschutes Rivers. In 2020, these combined projects restored 500 million gallons of water to support Oregon’s water resources and benefit the people and the ecosystems depending on them. The contribution to the DRC is restoring over 81 million gallons per year to the Deschutes River and is projected to restore over 815 million gallons cumulatively by 2028.
Intel’s grant will support the DRC’s leasing program for 10 years. Bend businesses have contributed to the lease program over time, and other corporations have invested through the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. These important contributions keep the DRC and the Deschutes basin moving forward.
Healthy rivers and reliable water supply are important to the future of Oregon. If you’d like to contribute to an organization in your area, seek out a local nonprofit river conservation group to contribute to projects and planning efforts.
Genevieve Hubert is a program manager with the Deschutes River Conservancy, joining the DRC in 2005. She manages the water leasing, transfer, and conservation programs, the DRC’s Groundwater Mitigation Bank, and the Blue Water fundraising program. Hubert coordinates with eight irrigation districts to protect and improve streamflow.