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Oct 4, 2006, Statesman Journal

Water storage study proposal could help shape Ore. farming

SALEM, Ore. (AP) -- A proposed water storage study could help shape the future of Oregon agriculture as demand for irrigation and other water usage keeps increasing, officials say.

"We think that over the long term, we need to be planning on a statewide basis for our future needs," said Debbie Colbert, senior policy coordinator for the Oregon Water Resources Department.

The department is asking Gov. Ted Kulongoski to include $890,000 in his budget for the study, called the Oregon Water Supply and Conservation Initiative. The study would analyze existing and future water needs and identify potential water storage sites.

"We have communities that are growing," Colbert said. "We have existing agricultural needs in some parts of our state that aren't being met. And we have periods of drought. We need to plan for how we are going to meet our needs in those periods, as well."

If funded, the study will consider several methods of capturing water when it is readily available - typically in the winter - and storing it for use when supplies are short - typically in the summer. Among the possible methods are channeling water during peak flows into off-stream storage sites, recharging aquifers and damming surface water.

While the study is designed to analyze and identify storage needs, methods and sites - it has raised concerns.

Some environmentalists, for example, have said they will urge legislators not to spend state funds on the study for fear it will pave the way to increased water storage - such as new dams.

John DeVoe, executive director of WaterWatch of Oregon, said his group opposes the construction of dams that block fish passage. Peak flows are important to preserve fish habitat and should be off limits to storage, he said.

"Flood events are very important for rivers," DeVoe said. "It's a myth that there is excess water in a river that can be captured and stored."

DeVoe said state law already has provisions for water storage siting procedures.

Many farmers, however, say a water-storage system needs to capture peak flows for use when water supplies are short.

"If you're not allowed to store water during peak flows, that really limits the amount of water available for storage," said Katie Fast of the Oregon Farm Bureau.

She said water already is being siphoned from farm interests at an alarming rate. A report to the Oregon Board of Agriculture earlier this month on water needs supports that claim, Fast said.

"Municipal and environmental water needs are increasingly being met by acquiring water rights originally secured for irrigation and other agricultural uses," the report said. "Little consideration is given to the impacts (injury) to agriculture and the broader social, economic and environmental consequences of these transfers."

Among facts included in the report:

- Oregon ranks third of all states for the number of farms that use irrigation and ninth of all states for the number of acres irrigated.

- Irrigated lands produce 77 percent of the value of harvested crops in Oregon.

- There are 1.9 million acres of irrigated land in Oregon and 2.6 million acres that contain soils that are prime if irrigated.

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