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Oasis Project Would Revitalize East Oregon

by Dan Zinkand, Freelance Writer
Capital Press, February 9, 2007

Columbia Basin farmers, businessmen say more river water key to growth

HERMISTON, Ore. - A blue streak of Columbia River water sandwiched between the winter-brown hills of Oregon and Washington mesmerizes Mike Hawman as he looks out the front window of his house.

"I live up here and I look at the river and I can't use any more of it," the 47-year-old farmer says. "If we could use our water rights ... there is land available for it to go on, but it's been locked up ever since (Barbara) Roberts was governor."

In the early 1990s, Oregon imposed a moratorium on using more water from the Columbia River.

Hawman and his father, Phil grow, clean and package grass seed, but they cannot grow their business without more water. Hawman and other Oregon farmers in the Columbia River Basin say Washington gets more than its fair share of water: Oregon uses 1 percent. Washington takes 5 percent.

It wouldn't take much more water to make a huge difference, Hawman says. "If you got just a half of a percent (more), it's a lot of water."

The Columbia River lies about 10 miles north of the headquarters of Umatilla Electric Cooperative, out of sight of cooperative CEO Steve Eldrige. But Eldrige can see what more water would do for area farmers, food processors, cities and jobs in the area.

He touts a UEC proposal called "The Oregon Oasis Project," which he says would create 5,000 to 7,000 jobs and about $360 million in economic development during the next 25 years.

The full title of the proposal reflects the hope, dreams and optimism of its proponents: "Oregon Oasis Project, Making the Columbia River Basin Green, Vibrant and Strong."

The project would provide 500,000 acre feet a year for agricultural, environmental and municipal uses and would create a wildlife mitigation fund of up to $3 million a year.

A half-million acre feet sound like a lot of water but would not measurably reduce the flow at the John Day Dam, the next recording device downstream, says Phil Hamm, director of Oregon State University's Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

Hamm says OSU has no position on the Oasis proposal and takes pains to state - and reiterate - that the treaty rights of Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation must be respected.

If the proposal becomes reality, the research center staff would help farmers just as it always has, Hamm says.

Eldrige and other backers want Oregon legislators to pass a bill that would allow more water to be used from the Columbia.

"This is not a water right," Eldrige said. "This is enabling legislation. If this bill passes you have a vehicle to apply for new, unrestricted water rights."

Oregon's moratorium on withdrawing more water from the Columbia was based on data from the 1970s, which mistakenly equated increased river flow with increased survival of juvenile salmon, Eldrige says.

The Oasis Project calls for up to $3 million a year for fish and wildlife mitigation funded by a $10-an-acre foot levy on new water withdrawn for newly irrigated farmland.

In a statement issued in mid-January, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation said it had met with Oasis proponents but has "not yet taken a position of support or opposition."

The tribes said more information is needed and said some technical information "was inaccurate and incomplete" when the proposal was presented.

"The CTUIR Tribal Government will continue to work with all entities to look at proposals to address tapping new Columbia River water for development and requirements that fish and in-flow streams be protected and mitigated for," according to the position statement.

"We are concerned about the water, and we are concerned about the salmon and all other being that rely on the river," said William H. Burke, CTUIR water commission chairman.

Oasis Project at a glance The Oregon Oasis Project proposal would enable up to 500,000 acre feet of water to be drawn from the Columbia River. The project would allow:

The proposal would create a water mitigation fund of up to $3 million a year financed by a $10-per-acre foot annual fee for those granted new water permits.

Source: Umatilla Electric Cooperative,

More water grows more corn and profits

Mike Hawman grows mostly perennial rye grassseed, but would like to grow more corn on his farm near Hermiston, Ore., just south of the Columbia River.

If he could get more Columbia River water, Hawman said he would. Growing a 250 bushel-an-acre corn crop requires water, says Don Horneck, Oregon State University Extension agronomist. Increasing demand from ethanol plants for corn - including those in Oregon's Columbia River Basin - has pushed prices to $4 a bushel and beyond.

And that's prompting some farmers to switch to corn from crops like sweet corn, Phil Hamm, director of OSU's Hermiston Ag Research Center, says. Horneck's crop budget for field corn is based on a yield of 250 bushels and acre and $4 corn. Just how high corn prices go? Prices broke the $5 bushel barrier in May 1996, peaking at $5.50. Those skyrocketing prices rationed corn and reportedly prompted agri-business giant Archer Daniels Midland to temporarilty cut its ethanol production by 40 percent.

Dan Zinkand, Freelance Writer
Oasis Project Would Revitalize East Oregon
Capital Press, February 9, 2007

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