In what turned out to be a closely contested race, incumbent Jack Bellinger was re-elected Tuesday to the Westland Irrigation District board of directors, defeating challenger Ray Vogt by just 12 votes.
Bellinger, owner of Bellinger Farms in Hermiston, kept his seat by a narrow count of 107-95, according to unofficial results. The Westland board will meet Monday, Nov. 20 at 1 p.m. to certify the election and announce an official winner.
The Westland Irrigation District delivers water to approximately 260 patrons in the Umatilla Basin. Only district members were allowed to vote in the board election, with voting weighted by land ownership. Anyone with up to 40 acres received one vote, while anyone with between 40 and 160 acres received two votes and anyone with more than 160 acres received three votes.
Vogt, who raises beef cattle and alfalfa on 24.5 acres, said he ran to improve transparency between the board and patrons, and to ensure small farmers like himself have a voice in major decisions moving forward, such as the ill-fated Central Project to secure mitigated water from the Columbia River.
“I just don’t feel like the smaller farmers have been asked for their advice in any of those decisions,” Vogt said. “The small guy has just as much right to his water as the big guy has to his water.”
While Vogt said he will support Bellinger, he added that the tight race does show there are patrons out there questioning whether small farmers are truly being represented.
In an interview Wednesday, Bellinger said his goal is to unite the district in the face of a lawsuit filed against it last year by a group of patrons with senior water rights.
“We need to resolve this lawsuit so it’s not hanging over our head,” Bellinger said. “Until we do, I don’t think our district can come together to do big things.”
The lawsuit accuses Westland of systematically taking water from the plaintiffs to benefit three larger farms with junior rights. Those patrons seek $4.14 million in combined damages. Bellinger said he disagrees with the premise of the suit, adding that arbitration appears unlikely.
“I think there needs to be a precedent set where their claims are ruled upon,” Bellinger said. “Then we can move forward.”
As for the long term, Bellinger said he remains committed to finding new sources of water for the district to ensure a full irrigation season every year. Unlike the neighboring Hermiston, Stanfield and West Extension irrigation districts, Westland remains entirely dependent on live flows from the Umatilla River and stored water in McKay Reservoir.
The Westland board, however, voted unanimously in May to abandon the Central Project — a $14.4 million proposal that would have brought mitigated water from the Columbia River — over fears the project could be stalled or derailed by the lawsuit.
Bellinger said that loss still hurts, so much that he considered not running again for the board.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we let slip through our fingers,” he said.
Ultimately, Bellinger said there are things the district can do to benefit all farms, large and small, if they come together. He specifically thanked the Westland Water Users Group for coming together after the Central Project fell through to combat what he described as misinformation within the district.
After 16 years on the board, Bellinger said he is encouraged that more people are starting to pay close attention to issues affecting Westland, and participating in the board’s monthly meetings.
“It’s made me be a better board member,” he said. “I’m much more conscious of my role, and procedures.”
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-966-0825.