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Oregon legislature to seek more water for rural farmers and revitalize the region’s economy

By Brad Cain
Salem, Oregon (AP) 1-08

It was touted by backers as the “Oasis Project,” a plan to draw an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water from the Columbia River to help farmers in eastern Oregon increase crop production and revitalize the region’s economy.

But the plan faded like a desert mirage in the 2007 Legislature in the face of complaints by environmentalists and veto threats from Gov. Ted Kulongoski. Critics said allowing more water withdrawals from the river in summer months would imperil native steelhead and salmon.

The plan is off the table, but finding ways to get more water to farmers and rural communities will be a priority when Oregon lawmakers meet in their first-ever annual session, set to begin Feb. 4.

For months now, lawmakers, farm groups, tribal representatives, conservationists and the governor’s office have been working on a proposal aimed at establishing large underground water storage areas in eastern Oregon to help farmers, protect fish and guard against a future of lower snowpacks caused by global climate change.

The idea would be to refill underground aquifers with water from the Columbia during the high-water winter months when fish are not migrating through the system, then allow farmers and other users to draw from that water during the dry summer months.

“The beauty of this approach is that you’re going to provide badly needed water to farmers to grow their crops with minimal environmental impact,” said state Sen. Brad Avakian, a Beaverton Democrat whose Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee is working on the bill.

Avakian’s bill, still in the draft stage, calls for spending about $1 million for an engineering and feasibility study of underground water storage in eastern Oregon’s Umatilla Basin, which feeds into the Columbia River.

The legislation also would make as much as $10 million available in grants to local communities and water districts throughout the state to look for new water sources to replenish dwindling supplies. It would be up to a future Legislature to provide the money to help pay for any projects deemed worthy of pursuing.

The focus of the coming legislative package will be on the Umatilla Basin, where irrigation on more than 65,000 acres of agricultural land has been curtailed because of depletion of underground aquifers.

Many of the 65,000 acres are used in what’s known as dryland farming, primarily of wheat that can be grown with rainfall and little other water, said Cindy Finlayson of the Umatilla Electric Cooperative, which is pushing for the legislation.

With abundant irrigation water, Finlayson said, “you could grow more high-value crops like carrots, potatoes, onions and corn which could be used to produce biofuels.”

“You get a much bigger bang for your back with that kind of farming,” she said.

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