Winter in northeastern Oregon is a time when our rivers swell and water is abundant. It’s also a time when the growing and harvest seasons are far from top of mind.
But this winter is unique. Years and years of hard work have brought the Umatilla Basin to the precipice of major investment in the future of our region.
It took decades for the stars to align in Salem and in the farmlands. Gallons of sweat and a steady trickle of dollars have been expended on engineering plans and political lobbying and molding together disparate factions into a sometimes shaky and sometimes sturdy coalition. Right now, the coalition holds. But there is still work to be done. Pick your own cliché to explain it: This is a big winter for the Northeast Oregon Water Association and their plan to bring more water to the Umatilla Basin.
NOWA’s proposal is a complex, multi-phase puzzle of engineering, water rights and environmental mitigation spread over three distinct areas from Boardman to east of Hermiston. Farmers, cities, counties and ports have all bought into the idea of more irrigation water from the Columbia River to bolster the region’s high-value agricultural economy. J.R. Cook, founder and director of NOWA, has discussed a potential benefit of billions of dollars for the region.
Funding for water projects finally came through in the 2015 Legislature, including $11 million earmarked specifically for the Umatilla Basin. But all the money in the world doesn’t mean much without a deal for the necessary water rights, certified by the state Water Resources Department.
To that end, Cook and company have racked up the miles driving into Salem and pitching their vision across the negotiating table. Any water drawn out of the Columbia must include mitigation for fish and river flows, which is where environmental groups — namely Food & Water Watch — have a keen interest. While they will never be on-the-masthead supporters of the project, NOWA believes they have crafted the plan so environmental groups will not outright oppose it.
Yet everyone — even NOWA — is walking on eggshells right now. The delicate balance could tip with a change in political will, a change in the climate, or a far-away rumble in the financial market.
Cook is optimistic everyone will be shaking hands soon, and one of three project areas could break ground next year. Until then, Cook said it’s imperative for growers to remain patient. If farms and politicians get antsy and begin to withdraw their support now, the whole effort could come tumbling down. Cook said that would be a travesty, and the star-aligning moment would be lost — possibly forever.
Our advice: Hold steady. Stay patient but work quickly. Let’s get what has been promised on paper onto the land as quickly as possible. Once that is done, we will reap the benefits in countless future harvests.