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Irrigators Run 10 Streams Dry, Report Says

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, September 20, 2000

WaterWatch of Oregon says an outdated system
allows people to withdraw as much as they need, regardless of the consequences

Ten rivers and streams in the state -- ranging from sections of the John Day in Eastern Oregon to the South Yamhill in the Willamette Valley -- become lifeless trickles each summer because farms, cities and industries draw out too much water, harming fish and other aquatic life, according to a report to be released today.

WaterWatch of Oregon, a Portland-based conservation group, says in the report the problem lies in an outdated state water-permit system that gives existing water users the right to withdraw as much water as they need, regardless of what happens to fish.

"What we have is a busted system," said Reed Benson, executive director of WaterWatch. "Providing enough water is key to saving fish."

The list is the first statewide accounting of rivers and streams that are oversubscribed, which means more water rights are allocated than the waterways can accommodate, Benson said. Other rivers not on the list also sometimes run dry, he said.

The list illustrates that rivers run too dry not only in the state's arid eastern region, but also in late summer and fall in the wet northwestern region, he said.

State officials acknowledge that many rivers and streams run short of water each year. They say their hands are tied because it wasn't until 1955 that the Legislature passed a law requiring that enough water be left in rivers for fish.

That means water rights issued before 1955 do not take into account the needs of fish. Under state law, permit holders are legally entitled to their water regardless of the effects of withdrawal on rivers and streams.

"We've stretched the resource in some areas beyond what rivers are capable of providing," said Paul Cleary, director of the state Water Resources Department, which administers the 70,000 water-withdrawal permits the state has issued. "We're trying to find ways to restore and protect water for fish while still providing certainly to economic users."

The listing of 12 salmon and steelhead stocks in Oregon as threatened or endangered put added pressure on the state's water regulators. The Water Resources Department has convened an Endangered Species Act task force to investigate ways of getting more water into streams.

One promising technique is to buy water rights from permit holders and use the water to supply in-stream rights that guarantee flows for fish, Cleary said. But Oregon water law does a better job at meeting needs of fish than water law in other Western states, he said.

Conservationists say more must be done.

"We haven't had a serious discussion of how to get water back in streams without devastating the economy," said Jeff Curtis, western conservation director of Trout Unlimited.

John Volkman, senior policy adviser for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency in charge of restoring threatened salmon populations, said changes in how Oregon allocates water are inevitable.

The federal Endangered Species Act makes it a crime to kill or hurt salmon on the list. That means even water users who are complying with state law when they withdraw water from rivers might be vulnerable to lawsuits filed by people who claim that fish are being harmed, Volkman said.

"Those issues are not resolved," he said.

Agriculture industry officials said the solution lies not in restricting farmers' water use but in building reservoirs to hold more water for both farms and fish.

"The concern we have is upsetting the agricultural economy of the state," said Andy Anderson, executive director of the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Janet Neuman, a professor of water law at Lewis & Clark College's Northwestern School of Law, said she thinks change is inevitable.

"The purpose of original Western water law was to encourage settlement of the West. The system worked very well for what it was designed to do," Neuman said. "Now there is a lot of change under way."

The 10 waterways listed in the WaterWatch report are all or part of the Umatilla River in Umatilla County; Deschutes River in Deschutes, Jefferson and Wasco counties; Illinois River in Josephine and Curry counties; Grande Ronde River in Union and Wallowa counties; Bear Creek in Jackson County; Walla Walla River in Umatilla County; Crooked River in Crook County; South Yamhill River in Polk and Yamhill counties; John Day River in Grant County; and Calapooya Creek in Douglas County.

More information is available at

Jonathan Brinckman
Irrigators Run 10 Streams Dry, Report Says
The Oregonian, September 20, 2000

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