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Why Water Is Oregon's New Gold

Renewable Energy

Oregon Environmental Council

By Teresa Huntsinger

For generations, most Oregonians have had the luxury of taking water for granted.

Today however, water isn’t as easy to come by. Oregonians who want to start up a business or establish a new farm aren’t able to secure new summertime water rights in much of the state. Worse yet, in many basins more water has been promised than our rivers and aquifers can deliver—resulting in periodic water shortages in basins such as the Klamath and Umatilla. Climate change and population growth are expected to further stress our water supplies in the future.

The time has come to start treating water like the precious resource it is, or risk grave effects on the state’s economy. The silver lining in our outdated water systems is that we have a vast opportunity to improve efficiency using readily available technologies. Just as energy providers have recognized that efficiency offers the cheapest source of new energy, investments in water conservation can have a huge payback for Oregon.

While manufacturing plants, cities and homeowners can and should play a role in using water more efficiently, the sector that can make the biggest difference is agriculture. Why? Farmers and ranchers use the largest share of Oregon’s water by far—79 percent of the state’s overall water withdrawals. Municipal water providers use 7 percent comparatively, and industry uses less than 3 percent.

Irrigation is critical to Oregon agriculture, and agriculture is critical to Oregon’s economy. We grow more than 250 commodities in Oregon, requiring more than 230,000 workers in peak season. In 2009, agriculture was linked to more than 15 percent of all economic activity in the state. 77 percent of the state’s agricultural production value comes from crops that depend on irrigation. So it’s fair to say that if Oregon’s agricultural sector fails to quickly adapt to today’s realities of water availability, we’ll all feel the economic pinch.

Oregon has a number of entrepreneurs in water efficiency innovation who are addressing these challenges and stimulating our economy in hard-hit areas of the state. For example, Fred Ziari of IRZ Consulting uses satellites, computers, automated weather stations, aircraft-mounted scanners and other technologies to monitor crops and make remote adjustments to irrigation needs. Jac Le Roux’s company, Irrinet, provides irrigation scheduling advice and equipment to orchards and ranches in Hood River and The Dalles. The Northwest Energy Education Institute in Eugene offers training in water conservation alongside energy management and renewable energy. The “green economy” typically conjures up images of solar panels, wind turbines and hybrid vehicles. Water efficiency represents another path toward providing green jobs, especially in rural Oregon.

While some progress has been made, most irrigation and water delivery systems are highly inefficient. One of the disincentives for water efficiency is the fact that while water users pay for the infrastructure and energy costs of delivering water, the water itself is free. Therefore, saving water is often motivated by energy savings and other ancillary benefits. Making it easier to achieve these benefits will accelerate water conservation. Energy Trust of Oregon and Bonneville Power Administration utilities offer financial incentives for irrigation upgrades. Some irrigation districts are generating renewable energy by incorporating small hydro turbines into their newly piped irrigation canals.

Benefits like these make water efficiency upgrades attractive if users can afford the initial investment, and if they can navigate the red tape and project delays associated with many cost-share programs. Streamlining water and energy efficiency programs and making them easier to navigate will go a long way towards increased participation. The state’s Allocation of Conserved Water program is an example of how we can provide water users an incentive to save this valuable resource in a way that benefits them in the long run, but the program suffers from a lack of awareness and coordination with other incentives.

Another way Oregon can take a leap forward in smarter water use is through the state’s first Integrated Water Resources Strategy. A first draft of this long-term plan for Oregon’s water will be released for public comment by the end of this year. To help inform my participation in the policy advisory group shaping this strategy, I have been reaching out to farmers, ranchers and irrigation experts around the state to produce Oregon Environmental Council’s forthcoming report called Making Water Work. The report, which will be posted on our website this month, outlines how advancing water efficiency can support the agricultural community while preventing our streams and rivers from going dry.

Oregon can no longer wait to adopt a smarter approach to water use. By capitalizing on efficiency opportunities now, we will be making valuable investments in a finite natural resource that is crucial for the future prosperity of our state.

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