"The average person isn't even aware this problem exists," says Reed Benson, executive director of Portland-based WaterWatch, a citizen conservation group.
WaterWatch's recent report, Rivers Without Water: Oregon's Unnatural Disaster, says the culprit is diversion of rivers. Of the state's 70,000 water withdrawal permits, 80 percent are controlled by irrigating farmers, many of whom don't measure how much water they take from rivers and streams. Some withdrawal permits date back to the turn of the century, the report notes, even though more recent federal and state laws aim to keep water flowing in rivers.
"It's a poorly managed system," Benson says. "There's no incentive to restore the rivers or conserve water."
But the state is taking steps to keep water in rivers, says Paul Cleary, director of Oregon's Water Resources Department. Oregon recently allocated $9 million of its state lottery money to buy water rights, mostly to protect salmon. Cleary adds that last year some 200 irrigators took advantage of incentives to leave water in streams.
WaterWatch recommends more use of incentives, more regulation of irrigators under existing laws, and new minimum-flow levels for endangered rivers.
But both Cleary and Benson agree that solving the water problem is ultimately up to the people of Oregon. "We have only 40 people on the ground and over 250,000 diversions in the state," says Cleary. "We have to rely on the users' willingness to regulate themselves and take advantage of the incentives."
Find the nine-page report on the Web at www.waterwatch.org or write WaterWatch at 213 Ash St., Suite 208, Portland, OR 97201.