MADRAS, Ore. (AP) — Phil Fine stands in a parched field and watches a harvester gnaw through his carrot seed crop, spitting clouds of dust in its wake. Cracked dirt lines empty irrigation canals, and dust devils and tumbleweeds punctuate a landscape in shades of brown.
Across an invisible line separating Fine’s irrigation district from the next, it’s another world. Automated sprinklers hiss as they douse crops, cattle munch on green grass and water bubbles through verdant farmland.
In this swath of central Oregon, where six irrigation districts rely on the Deschutes River, the consequences of the strict hierarchy dictated by the American West’s arcane water law — “first in time, first in right" — are written on the land. As drought ravages the West, the districts with century-old water claims are first in line for the scarce resource while others nearby with more recent claims have already run out.
“It’s like the Wizard of Oz. ... It’s shocking the difference,” said Matt Lisignoli, a farmer who got nearly five times more water on his land in one irrigation district than on fields in another.
“I’ve learned more about water in the last two months than I have in the last 20 years, because it’s always been here,” he said. “You don’t know until you get in a bind.”
The stark contrast between the haves and have-nots two hours southeast of Portland has brought new urgency to efforts to share water. Proposals to create “water banks" or “water markets" would allow farmers with excess supply to lease it to those in need. The idea is part of a discussion about letting the free market play a bigger role in water conservation as human-caused climate change fuels drought and farmers run out of options.
Yet the concept is fraught with risks and resistance. Larger-scale efforts to spread water more equitably have been uneven. Along the Deschutes River, where every drop is accounted for, many farmers worry that if they lease their water rights, even temporarily, they may not get them back.
“Whether it’s feasible or not is a very local question,” said Brett Bovee of WestWater Research, a consulting firm for water market research.
Many Western water markets compensate farmers for diverting water to wildlife and cities instead of fields. Far fewer avenues get water to farmers, and the biggest challenge is moving it between irrigation districts, said Scott Revell, manager of the Roza Irrigation District in Washington state’s Yakima Valley.
The districts oversee water deliveries to customers and often operate as fiefdoms, each with water claims and history. Outdated infrastructure and bureaucracy — often compounded by rigid state laws — make water transfers difficult even between cooperating districts.
In central Oregon, for example, Lisignoli wanted to take irrigation from his farmland in a district with senior water rights and transfer it to parched crops he grows in a neighboring district with lesser rights.
Lisignoli's application had to be approved by both districts and Oregon's water agency, which required an 11-day public notice period, he said.
Desperate, he purchased emergency water from a vineyard for $2,700, but water in that district ran out last month. He hasn’t watered 16 acres of pumpkins in weeks and hopes they will survive for Halloween sales.
“It was a futile effort,” he said. “But I’m hoping that it shows the flaws in the system.”
California, meanwhile, has one of the most flexible water markets in the West, allowing irrigation districts to move water where it's most needed. After a major drought in the 1970s, lawmakers made transfers easier and emphasized that leasing water wouldn't jeopardize rights, said Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.