Road-trips, Representatives and Adventures in Eastern Oregon

Summer is road-trip time, and recently, OEC staff Karen Lewotsky (Water Policy and Rural Partnerships Director) and Morgan Gratz-Weiser (Legislative Director) headed southeast across Oregon to Crane, with stops along the way in Tumalo and Prineville.

  • Why Crane? The gathering in Crane was organized by leading legislators and partner organizations Verde, Willamette Partnership and others, to celebrate recent state investment in water and water infrastructure. The celebration kicked off with a virtual Zoom event the preceding week, and culminated with a tour of Harney basin groundwater resources, on-farm water use-efficiency practices and a BBQ lunch at Representative Mark Owens’ farm in Crane OR. 
  • Why Prineville? To check out the Crooked River Wetlands, a natural infrastructure project that shows how many different benefits a truly collaborative project can provide for a community.
  • And why Tumalo?  To check on progress installing the Swalley Irrigation District’s new Level 2 EV charging station, a collaboration between OEC and the district.

Big irrigation system over a farm

Collaborative efforts to plan for the Harney Basin’s water future

Having made the drive from Portland,  we arrived in the parking lot at Rep Owens’ farm to find  a series of basin maps  that showed cropping patterns as well as aquifers used for irrigation, domestic wells, and municipal water sources.  The group included local farmers, legislators, water policy advocates and members of the Harney Community-Based Water Planning Collaborative.  

After a round of introductions, the group loaded up for the tour, heading down the road and raising a plume of dust visible for miles.  First, out to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge to learn about the geology, hydrology, and changing water patterns experienced by the natural landscape as presented by Zach Freed, hydrologist with The Nature Conservancy and Jeff MacKay from the wildlife refuge. At Sodhouse Springs, one of 2,858 springs in the Harney basin, we learned how these springs feed surface streams and shallow groundwater tables, and are crucial sources of water in the basin for all wildlife, agriculture, and people. We also learned that this spring, like others in the basin, has gradually been shrinking and is now completely dry. There’s little historical data on these springs but researchers do know that they are fed by the basin’s groundwater system, so if springs are going dry, that means the water table is dropping. Too much water is being pumped out of the aquifer — an unsustainable situation not just for the springs but for all groundwater users in the basin.

With that sobering fact in mind, we toured Rep. Owens’ alfalfa hay operation, observed hay baling in progress, and discussed the new high efficiency water sprinkler heads on the center pivot systems. He led a quality discussion on the future of water management, methods for improving irrigation efficiency, and options for retiring groundwater from irrigation use.  Members of the place-based planning group shared the challenging work of bringing diverse communities together. We learned about the place-based planning efforts, an exciting collaboration between interested stakeholders in the basin. Knowing that water is the lynchpin of agriculture, the local economy, public health and a thriving ecosystem, the collaborative has been using funds from the Water Resources Department’s Place-based Planning Program to build towards a new water future for the Harney basin, a future that acknowledges the region’s increasing water scarcity. 

After that busy morning, the group returned to Rep Owens’ house for a BBQ lunch where all participants were able to share thoughts, ideas, and concerns over truly delicious food. OEC is always grateful for opportunities to meet with local farmers, community leaders, and elected leaders to build relationships and a better understanding of practical work on the ground. This helps inform our policy work and ensure we’re crafting balanced solutions to Oregon’s growing ecological challenges, and of course, we get to make new friends. Thank you to all who hosted us in Crane, Burns, and at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge!

Natural infrastructure nestled below the rimrock

Heading back towards Portland the next day, we detoured through Prineville to take a morning stroll through the Crooked River Wetlands Complex.  This 120-acre artificial wetland complex replaced a proposed traditional mechanical solution, reducing the cost of upgrading the city’s wastewater treatment system from $62 million to $7.77 million while still achieving important water quality goals!  And the co-benefits are pretty amazing.  There’s over 5K of trails winding around the various treatment ponds, which are full of plants, birds, and (sometimes) water. Bikers, runners, walkers and dog-walkers were out and about, reading the signs designed and maintained by local schools. Like many natural infrastructure projects, this one really benefited from an inclusive design process — more stakeholder engagement led to better design and committed community buy-in for the project. You can learn more about this project and other Oregon natural infrastructure projects in a recent report we authored with our partners at Willamette Partnership: Natural Infrastructure in Oregon.


Getting a charge out of Tumalo

By the time we got to Tumalo, it was well after the lunch hour and we were more than happy to drop in at the Bite, Tumalo’s food cart pod.  We were glad to spot an e-bike in the bike racks before strolling down the street to the Swalley Irrigation District to check out progress on the installation of a Level 2 EV charger in the district parking lot. Once installed, the charger will be available for public use, supporting rural EV drivers in the area. This project is funded with money generated by the Oregon’s Clean Fuels Program and disbursed through a grant program managed by Pacific Power. OEC was instrumental in passing legislation to establish the program, and we’re excited to be working on implementation! This project will be the topic of another blog in the near future, so stay tuned for details.


Learning by seeing

Aside from eating good food, meeting good people, and seeing some pretty magnificent scenery, what did we learn from this trip?

  1. Oregon needs more and better data to manage its water better. It’s just that simple.  We need more data on water use — how much is being used, by whom, where and when, more accurate and complete data on groundwater and surface water hydrology and in-stream needs for fish and wildlife. Of course, that data needs to be publicly available, so cities, counties, farmers, and industrial users can plan accordingly. OEC is working with the legislature, NGO partners and agencies to try to ensure that data is gathered, coherently compiled and accessible.
  2. Community engagement is key to achieving positive outcomes. Time and time again, the importance of good communication, inclusive conversations, and a willingness to move at the speed of trust have all been part of success in achieving water-related goals.
  3. Funding is a necessary element for moving Oregon’s water future in a positive direction. Many of our conversations revolved around funding — where do we get the money to do the good work that we’ve identified as essential? A one-time infusion of funds gets the ball rolling, but we need to make sure the funding for agency staff, technical assistance and incentive/cost-share programs doesn’t dry up after one legislative session. Instead, we need to commit to the long-term, and set up ongoing, reliable, and adequate funding for our water future goals.
  4. Collaboration and coordination is essential, and not just among stakeholders. Our regulatory agencies must coordinate across agency boundaries, ensuring that the goals of the Integrated Water Resources Strategy are met. Regulation of water quality, water quantity and safe drinking water may be assigned to different agencies, but in reality it’s all one water, and we need to manage with that in mind.
  5. We need to rely more on natural infrastructure and less on built infrastructure. Implemented appropriately, natural infrastructure can save money, protect and enhance water quality and water quantity, and provide a wide range of co-benefits for communities across the state. It’s also surprisingly resilient!
  6. Climate change is impacting water resources. When and where the water comes — summer or winter, snow or rain, more here and less there — already has and will continue to force Oregonians to adapt. It’s better to start planning now, rather than look away and deny the facts.

OEC works on these issues in Salem, focused on policies and programs. It’s rewarding and educational to see how that work can play out on the ground, making meaningful changes. We’ll reflect on what we’ve seen and learn as we move forward with our efforts to build out effective and meaningful state-level water policies that can be implemented in ways that benefit all Oregonians, because we are all water users.

group of people standing around a speaker in Eastern Oregon

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