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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Common Ground: Oregon Water Trust

Air Date: Week of October 17, 1997

For many environmental groups, "compromise" is a dirty word. Why agree to allow more logging, more ranching, more mining they argue when so little remains to conserve? Many loggers, ranchers and miners also stake out extreme positions on resource issues, so solutions that could benefit both sides often go begging. But, in the past few years a handful of conservationists and landowners have emerged from their respective bunkers to negotiate disagreements. Such alliances are controversial. While some call them progress, others worry about giving the store away. Patrick Cox of member station WBUR in Boston profiles one green group embracing compromise in its quest to improve fish runs in Oregon.

Transcript

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. For many environmental groups, especially in the American West, compromise is a dirty word. Why agree to allow more logging, more ranching, more mining, they argue, when so little remains to conserve? Many loggers, ranchers, and miners also stake out extreme positions on resource issues, so solutions that could benefit both sides often go begging. But in the last few years, a handful of conservationists and landowners have emerged from their respective bunkers to negotiate agreements. Such alliances are controversial. While some call them progress, others worry about giving the store away. Patrick Cox of member station WBUR in Boston profiles one green group embracing compromise in its quest to improve fish runs in Oregon.

(Flowing water)

COX: On the eastern slopes of Oregon's Cascade Mountains, craggy volcanic peaks tower over pine forests, spilling abundant streams down the mountainsides. But as soon as the streams hit the flat land below, the water seems to vanish. These valley streams used to be deep and cool, ideal habitat for fish.

REELEY: Now what we have is a very shallow channel, very little water. No water depth for fish to use for cover.

COX: US Forest Service Biologist Mike Reeley is standing by the banks of Squaw Creek, near Sisters, Oregon. There are none of the once abundant steelhead here any more, and Mr. Reely estimates the trout population has halved in the past 20 years. Downstream, hydroelectric dams have blocked the steelheads' migration. But perhaps even more lethal are the huge irrigation projects in this valley. Kyle Gorman is the local water master.

GORMAN: There is actually more water rights than there is stream flow. So, where we're standing here now, in a typical summer this steam would be completely dry because there's just not enough water to go around.

(Footfalls)

COX: A few miles down the Squaw Creek Valley, farmer Ted Eadie is irrigating his 140 acres of hay and barley fields.

EADIE: My favorite's barley.

MAN: Tastes good, we've been nibbling on it.

EADIE: Yeah.

COX: Mr. Eadie's wheel-line sprinklers spit out more than 500 gallons of water every minute, 24 hours a day, 5 months a year. That's more than 100 million gallons of water a year for just this one farm. Mr. Eadie owns the rights to even more water, but he doesn't want to farm all his property. So when a group called the Oregon Water Trust offered to buy his excess water allotments, he jumped at the chance.

EADIE: My wife would like her house completed. So, you know, some of the money would go toward that, as well as regular living-type expenses and stuff. It's difficult to try to farm in this area, and expect it to be economically viable just because of the limited growing season and the fact that land costs are so high.

(A motor revs up)

COX: The Oregon Water Trust paid Mr. Eadie $43,000 for the rights to 158 million gallons of water a year. Mr. Eadie will use the money to improve his farm, and the trust will use the water to improve conditions for fish by letting it flow freely through an otherwise parched stream bed. The deal is one of 27 such agreements the quickly-growing trust has brokered this year. Altogether in its 3 years in existence, the trust has returned water to 26 damaged streams in Oregon. Those who run the trust lace dedication to their ideals with a heavy dose of pragmatism.

PURKEY: We knew from the very beginning that the Oregon Water Trust, the only way it would work is if the landowners saw us as an opportunity and not as a threat.

COX: Trust Director Andrew Purkey is the quintessential Pacific Northwest environmentalists. He sports a beard and sandals and recycles religiously at his home in Portland. But a stint at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government also taught Mr. Purkey the value that can come from working with farmers and ranchers rather than against them.

PURKEY: I mean, ideally we'd like them to be interested in improving the habitat, and in fact, you know, a lot of them are interested in that if you give them the ideas and the tools. But we don't need to have that in order to reach an agreement. And we've learned to just try to understand what they need to make it work for them. And if what they need to make it work is okay for us in terms of what we're trying to accomplish, then we have a deal.

COX: But the trust's opportunism has opened it up to criticism from more traditional environmental groups. Bill Marlett, Director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, is particularly galled by the water trust's boast that they don't have a staff attorney.

MARLETT: For their public relations it's great. But I think it's naive to think that you can accomplish all the things that need to be done without having those support people working with you.

COX: And with tens of thousands of miles of degraded streams in Oregon alone, Mr. Marlett believes the trust's work, limited to dealing only with willing water users, is marginal at best.

MARLETT: You have a government that's not accountable. You have people that are not accountable and really don't care about what they do to the environment. All they care about is making a buck. Those people aren't going to come to the table. So, for that small percentage that's willing to work at the table, that's great. But the sad reality is that most of the people are not in that camp.

COX: But Trust staffers say there are enough farmers and ranchers willing to deal with them to make their approach worthwhile. After all, buying water rights is one of the few ways, short of an Endangered Species listing, to ensure that there's at least some water for fish and wildlife. Under western water law established in the 1800s, there was no guarantee that any water would be left in a river or stream. Settlers had the only legitimate claims, and the right to water became like any other property right, which could be sold or handed down through the generations. But in the past decade some states, including Oregon, have changed their laws to allow people to buy water rights for the sole purpose of keeping the water in-stream.

(Footfalls and flowing water)

COX: Today, the trust's Andrew Purkey and staff scientist Leslie Bach are visiting the site of the group's first ever deal, negotiated with a rancher 3 years ago.

(Flowing water, louder)

The stream here, Buck Hallow Creek, is flowing as swiftly as it did before it was nearly sucked dry to irrigate nearby fields. Now young alder trees, which provide much needed shade for spawning fish, are flourishing along the banks.

BACH: The vegetation seems to be in pretty good shape. So the habitat's pretty good in here.

COX: At first the Oregon Water Trust mostly leased water rights to streams like this. But that meant the water could eventually revert to an agricultural use. Now, with the banking of environmental foundations, the water trust is signing more and more permanent water deals. That's making some farmers and ranchers wary that they could ultimately go under if they can't get the water they need. Bill Howell is a farmer from Imbler, Oregon.

HOWELL: Theoretically, given enough money and time, they could dry up irrigated agriculture in Oregon. It's most likely a worthwhile, a good concept. I just have a caution sign up making sure that we don't have some negative impacts on it.

COX: But the water trust has recruited several farmers and ranchers to its board, and that's helped secure its credibility in many rural areas. Ted Eadie is one farmer who's convinced. He admits he wasn't the likeliest partner for an environmental group.

EADIE: I consider myself a conservative Republican, and I'm really not in favor of the government being in charge of taking things from people, which the environmental movement is really focused on. You know, just don't let them do anything. And I think that if there's anything that's happening in the environmental movement that's got some private industry involved, which I see Oregon Water Trust being involved with, I see that as a benefit to the conservative side as well as the liberal side.

COX: This spirit of cooperation is slowly spreading in the west. A group modeled on the Oregon Water Trust is now forming in Washington State. And other, smaller efforts are underway in several other states. No one believes that buying back water rights alone will restore the great salmon and steelhead runs of the last century, not while dams block the fish's passage and decades of overfishing stunt its return. But a growing number of conservationists now firmly believe the incremental middle ground actions of groups such as the Oregon Water Trust can achieve as much, and sometimes more, than the epic legal battles for which the environmental movement is known. For Living on Earth, I'm Patrick Cox in Sisters, Oregon.

 

 

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