If you live in the Willamette Valley, it’s easy to assume Oregon has plenty of water.
State officials, and advocates like Teresa Huntsinger with the Oregon Environmental Council, disagree.
“Many people still think of Oregon as being a very wet state. But the fact that is that in most of the state, we don’t have additional water available in the summer, and in many parts of the state, there’s actually less water available than has already been promised,” she said.
Oregon officials have rolled out a draft water plan, to confront the mounting challenge of keeping water plentiful and clean. Rob Manning reports on one approach: conserving water on Oregon farms.
Kate Conley has a stark memory of what can happen when water supplies get too low. Her job at the Wasco County Soil and Water Conservation District includes the 15-Mile watershed. Two years ago, high temperatures and low water levels killed hundreds of fish there.
“Think there were a lot of reports coming in on Friday afternoon – people just started calling the local fish and wildlife office, and saying they saw dead fish. So, nobody really got out there on the weekend, until Monday morning. By the time anyone got out there to check it out, who knows how many raccoons had eaten dead fish, and maybe the water temperatures had changed a little bit,” Conley said.
That’s a worst-case scenario, but the new 170-page draft water plan hopes to limit those. One element comes up throughout the plan’s 12 recommendations: use less water. Brenda Bateman with the state Water Resources Department says conservation is something anyone can do. But she says people tend not to.
“Unless they’re really feeling it themselves, in their homes, in their workplaces, and in their wallets,” Bateman said.
And the people the state really needs to motivate are farmers, who account for 80 percent of the state’s water consumption. Bateman says on the bright side, lots of progress has already been made.
Tim Dahle owns an orchard in The Dalles. Dahle says when he started out as a field hand, years ago, the way you watered orchards was to use a whole lot of water a few times a year.
“So you can imagine, that’s like six inches of irrigation or more each time. It’s a flood to that tree, and stone fruits don’t do well when the soil moisture gets too high,” Dahle said.
But Dahle says technology has come a long way. Now he uses tiny micro-sprinklers close to the ground.
“They’re inexpensive, efficient … They’re only about a dollar fifty apiece, two dollars,” he explained.
Dahle says they allow him to control the water throughout the year.
“We only irrigate about 1.2 inches at a time – a real low rate of irrigation, so the soil moisture stays just about at the ideal rate,” he said.
Keeping the soil at that “not-too-wet, not-too-dry” ideal used to be a decidedly un-scientific process, according to Mike Richardson. He manages The Dalles Irrigation District.
“Before the method was the ‘shovel method’ they call it – or you kick your toe in and see how wet it is. There’s a lot of places where that’s how agriculture is still done, and you wonder how successful it can be. There’s a lot of waste there, just in not knowing what your soil is doing,” Richardson said.
Now, Richardson says scientific sensors and scheduling software on half of his district’s irrigated land are reducing how much water is lost to evaporation and runoff.
The state sees conservation as a way to maintain water quality and quantity. But there are other motivations. Mike Richardson says wasted water means wasted electricity. That’s because his irrigation district relies heavily on electric-powered water pumps.
“We pump water directly from the Columbia River, we pump up, pushing 1000 feet elevation, total. This particular parcel here goes through diversion plant on the Columbia River, the second re-lift Plant A and Plant B – so it goes through three pumping stations to get here,” he said.
Orchardist, Tim Dahle, wants to limit excess water because it fosters weeds and attracts fungus. That in turn means spending more on herbicides and fungicides. And he says if everyone uses less water, there’s less conflict.
“If you take too much, it shuts down the whole system for that area of town. So one grower who was irresponsible, or had a meter that he just couldn’t read, might shut down the area for 800 acres – and all of his neighbors around. That was a real frustration,” Dahle said.
Mike Richardson says he’s seeing a 10 or 15 percent savings on the irrigation district’s energy bills, thanks to new efficiency measures. Those savings are part of the reason the Bonneville Power Administration and utilities are pushing an initiative they call “Save Water, Save Energy” across the Northwest.
No region is likely to see the same benefits as The Dalles. That’s because the irrigation distirct relies so heavily on pumping.
People in the water conservation business say farmers can be reluctant to change.
“A lot of this is tied to ‘this is how we do business to we just don’t have any options.’ And quite honestly, it takes a little creativity sometimes,” Merlin Berg said.
Berg works with Irrinet, a company offering technologies like moisture sensors, irrigation software, and digital water meters. Berg says the technology is great for orchards in The Dalles. But he says local water availability limits its usefulness elsewhere.
“A irrigator often in an irrigation district has to take the water when it’s available to them – and so it limits their flexibility in applying a scientific irrigation scheduling proposition,” Berg explained.
Officials and advocates say the state’s focus on outreach makes sense – because there are underused programs that could help the state save water. But the plan includes changes to state law and funding requirements. Those would come before lawmakers in 2013. The plan is scheduled to be finalized this summer.
(This was first reported for opbnews.org.)
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