Still, the path that people in the Deschutes has chosen comes with its own price, and difficult choices may lie in the years ahead.

Aylward’s 20-year plan for meeting urban and instream demands looks first to water that will spin off as development spreads across a projected 9,000 acres — some 5 percent of the basin’s irrigated land. The remainder of the water, says Aylward, will come from efficiency projects, to avoid taking any more land out of production.

Efficiency, however, is expensive. It can be far cheaper to simply buy or lease a farmer’s water right, take that land out of production, and return the water instream. In the Deschutes, buying an acre-foot outright runs from $330 to $550. Leasing an acre-foot for a year costs, on average, less than $4.50. In contrast, Aylward estimates that, in the future, it will take an average of at least $1,000 of canal-piping work to yield an acre-foot of water.

The emphasis on efficiency projects drove the total cost of the 20-year plan to $135 million. Getting the money needed to make the plan work will be a challenge. Johnson and Aylward have proposed a four-way split between the federal government, the state, nonprofit and quasi-governmental interests including the conservancy and the Bonneville Power Administration, and the irrigation districts.

"I think everybody has to have skin in the game," says Johnson. But he adds that the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina have substantially eaten into available federal funding. "The 2007 budget, which Congress is trying to pass right now, is tight. The thinking is that the ’08 budget is worse."

That raises the question of whether there is a more cost-effective way to meet the challenge. Nearly three-quarters of the plan’s $135 million price tag is for efficiency improvements — but they will yield only about half the total water needed. "You could do the same thing with $50 million less," says Aylward, "if you just took a small percentage (more) land out of production."

Yet taking a mixed approach — call it the middle path — makes it possible to shift water to new uses without completely raiding farms for their water. That’s an issue that Marc Thalacker has grappled with on a small scale in the Three Sisters Irrigation District.

"Yeah, we can say we’re just gonna cater to growth and dry up farmland. But do you want to dry it all up?" he says. Efficiency projects like pipelines may be more expensive than fallowing land and transferring the water instream. But, Thalacker says, "The pipeline is creating sustainable ag" — that is, allowing farming to continue in the face of urban growth — "so you’re still protecting ag, and at the same time creating flows for fish."

And by allowing irrigation districts to let go of their water at a comfortable pace, the process also gives them some control over a potentially scary future. "Buying water and retiring farm land in an ag community risks hollowing out the infrastructure for that community," says Malloch, the Seattle attorney. "Are enough farms left to keep the ditches running and the schools, equipment dealers and farm supply companies in business? Dry up enough land and eventually the economics no longer work for that community."

Because the economics of farming are marginal, "That will happen in a lot of places whether the water gets bought or not," Malloch adds. "But I think the conservancy is working with people to manage that process and keep a core agricultural community going."

***

The effort is not without critics. One longtime member of the Central Oregon Irrigation District, who recently stepped down, says that the river restoration effort has been perpetrated by "highly educated, very intelligent people that have never tried to irrigate a garden." Other farmers have likened the steelhead reintroduction to the federal government’s reintroduction of wolves into Idaho: Once the fish are back, they will likely be protected under the Endangered Species Act and farmers will suddenly be liable for harm to them.

And while few people inside the river-restoration effort are willing to say so out loud, the entire project is something of a calculated gamble. Even if the instream flow targets can be met, they may not be enough to successfully re-establish steelhead runs in the basin. The federal government could come calling for more water.

Still, if the Klamath provides a cautionary example of what happens when the ratchet is tightened down too far, the Deschutes may be the counterexample: An effort to slowly unwind the water-development ratchet before it breaks and mauls someone. "We can all see the problem, and if we work together, nobody gets anything taken away from them," says Bob Main, the former water master. "They may give something up, but they will get something in return."

That something might only be peace of mind, but even that may be worth the price. During his tenure at the state water resources department, Main oversaw not only the Deschutes but the Klamath, too. There, Main witnessed firsthand the carnage as farmers, Indians and environmentalists threatened each other with the prospect that, as he puts it, they would "legally undo everything you hold dear."

"Here," he says, "nobody feels attacked and destroyed by somebody with a bigger hammer. This is an effort that can go on for another 50 years."

Main is quick to concede that unwinding the ratchet is a perilous process, one that takes patience — and trust — on everyone’s part. But people here are committed to playing by the rules they’ve created for themselves. In the cost-benefit analyses constantly running through Steve Johnson and Marc Thalacker’s heads, money spent on lawsuits could be put to far more productive use piping canals.

Each additional cubic-foot per second put in Whychus Creek or the Deschutes is water that will never touch a farmer’s fields. But it’s also insurance that the federal government won’t step in with its own set of rules, as it did in the Klamath.

Thalacker concedes that he sometimes loses sleep worrying about whether, when the fish return in 2011, there won’t be enough water to sustain them. "But as we have each success, it moves us up to the next project," he says. "And let’s say in 2011, we’ve got a good steady flow of 20 second-feet in the creek. If someone says, ‘Well, you know, we really need 25,’ is an environmental group going to come sue us over that? I don’t believe so. I think they’ll come to us and say, ‘How do we get that next five second-feet?’ "

If the Deschutes has proved anything so far, it’s that incremental efforts — second-foot after second-foot after second-foot — add up. In our determination to turn the West into something it was never meant to be, we unraveled an intricate world. Re-creating that world begins with fussing and obsessing over the tiniest details of every single stretch of screwed-up stream.

Similar efforts are already under way on neighboring Columbia River tributaries like the Umatilla, Walla Walla, John Day and Yakima rivers. And somewhere far beyond these incremental efforts lies a much bigger possibility: The chance to break out of the cycle of water shortages and water wars, and step into a world where steelhead and salmon can sustain themselves.

That day is a long way off. But more than a century’s worth of bad news cannot obscure this fact: Nowhere is it written that irrigated agriculture, cities, and fresh, wild-caught steelhead sandwiches are fundamentally irreconcilable phenomena.

 

Matt Jenkins is West Coast correspondent for High Country News. This article was made possible with support from the William C. Kenney Watershed Protection Foundation and the Jay Kenney Foundation.

Sidebar

How to save a creek... one drop at a time

A detailed map shows the work being done on Oregon’s Whychus Creek to restore instream flows with the cooperation of local farmers