IRRIGON - Retired and living on a fixed income, Lorna and Buck Davis are living on less than an acre in Irrigon and have recently become afraid of losing their home due to an increase in water right rates.

The couple bought their home, complete with a water right, four years ago and they hope to spend their retirement years there, close to their son.

Recently, the West Extension Irrigation District has raised the couple's water right rates by $100 and Lorna said they can't afford to keep it.

"They raised it from $169 last year to $269 this year. Plus we have to help pay utilities," Lorna Davis said.

Davis is not the only small land owner in Irrigon who is feeling caught between a rock and a hard place.

At a recent meeting at Stokes Landing, a handful of small landowners gathered to ask questions of Paul Hendricks, an assistant to the watermaster. The landowners were hoping that Hendricks could help them decide how to handle the situation, but many came away feeling confused by water right laws, which are regulated by the state.

Hendricks told farmers that the cost of a standard transfer, (though it could be passed on to the buyer) is $200, more than the water rate hike. That statement left many in the audience shaking their heads.

Leslie and Pat Suter, also land and water right owners in Boardman, are trying to take the issue to state representatives for help.

"Small farms are losing to big farms," Leslie Suter said. "We feel like we have to pay it or lose the land."

The Suters and others believe that if they can't pay the increase, a lien will be placed on their property by WEID and they could lose their property.

Other Irrigon residents and WEID members who attended the meeting called the rate increase "ludicrous" and "exorbitant."

"It's getting to be so expensive, no one wants to buy it," said one farmer, who didn't want to be identified. "The (water) district has left a bad taste in my mouth. I don't want to give it to someone else and I don't want to give it over to the district."

Bev Bridgewater, district manager of WEID, said this week that the water increases shouldn't be causing the small landowners so much strife. She said many of these problems are caused by simple misunderstandings.

She said there are several options that landowners can choose from to help them pay the costs.

"We're aware that many of the people here are on fixed incomes," Bridgewater said. That's why WEID's board voted to allow the increase to be paid in installments over six months or a year, she said.

"They can pay $20 a month or what they can afford," she said. No one is trying to take their land, she insisted.

Bridgewater said the rate increases were decided on in a series of public meetings. She said the meetings were attended by local farmers and landowners, but no one chose to speak out against the increases.

Still, she said, she understands that the increases could prove a hardship for some and WEID is making an effort to pursue grants to help offset costs.

The money from the rate increase is going to pay for system-wide improvements, she said, improvements that are much needed and have been put off for some time.

"We're going to do the best we can do to help people," she said.

If a water right owner decides that he or she just doesn't want to pay an increase on principle, and no longer wants the water right, he can sign over the right to WEID to keep or sell, Bridgewater said.

The owner also can sell it to a private buyer.

During the transfer or sale, the water right does not lose its prior water right date on the date of sale, she said. In other words, an 1893 right still retains that priority date if it's resold in 2003.

"It's a misunderstanding that the water right can't be sold without the land attached," she said. "Water right owners, at least in our district, can sell it or have it removed from their property or canceled."

It's a complicated process, getting rid of a water right, Bridgewater said, but she said her door is open to anyone who has questions or is confused on what action they should take.

She also plans to put out a newsletter soon to address issues of concern and options with WEID members.

"There are a lot of options. But water isn't cheap and we need to both conserve it and use it wisely," Bridgewater said. "If people decide they can get cheaper water from the city, then we will be happy to talk to them about what to do with their water right."

For more information on the issue, call Bridgewater at 922-3814.

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