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‘Free-market environmentalism’ Landowners work with Oregon Water Trust to preserve resources

By JANET COOK

News staff writer

October 13

Until a few years ago, third generation Dufur rancher Gene Underhill would go through a little charade each spring. Come March or so, he’d dam up a section of Fifteen Mile Creek, which runs through his property, in order to divert water to irrigate some of his 2,300 acres of land — much of it planted in wheat and hay.

He needed some of the water, but not nearly all of it. The problem was, if he didn’t use it by diverting it onto his land — a so-called “beneficial use” — Western water law dictated that he would forfeit his rights to the water.

Underhill didn’t want to risk that, especially since he held “senior” water rights on the creek — some dating back to the mid-1800s. Owning senior water rights means that, in a low water year, you get your water before landowners who have lesser, or “junior” water rights, pertaining to the date — which, particularly in ranch and farm country, makes your land more valuable.

In the late 1980s, the Oregon legislature passed a law called the Instream Water Rights Act. The landmark law made it possible for the first time for water rights to remain “instream”; in other words, letting water remain in a creek or river was now a beneficial use and would not put landowners at risk of losing their water rights.

The law was perfectly applicable for Gene Underhill, who felt he was wasting water by irrigating some parts of his property, which he termed “marginal” due to poor soil quality. Underhill got wind of the Oregon Water Trust (OWT), a small Portland-based nonprofit formed in the wake of the new water rights act that seeks to acquire water rights in various small- to medium-sized creeks around the state and convert them to instream in order to enhance stream flows and benefit threatened fish populations.

It happened that Fifteen Mile Creek was one of the OWT’s “priority streams,” according to Fritz Paulus, the firm’s executive director.

“The Fifteen Mile is a small basin and it’s isolated,” Paulus said. Those factors make it an ideal spawning and rearing habitat for a unique stock of winter Steelhead. Unfortunately, massive irrigation on the small creek had caused the stream flow to dwindle every year by late summer, endangering the Steelhead habitat.

The OWT offered to lease some of Underhill’s water rights and the rancher signed up. That was five years ago. Today, Underhill leases water rights totaling nearly 100 acres to OWT.

Oregon Water Trust’s leases with Gene Underhill are just one of 82 projects the innovative firm is involved with throughout the state — amounting to 124 cubic feet per second of water protected instream, about one-third the average August flow in the Hood River. On Fifteen Mile Creek alone, OWT is engaged in 20 separate water rights leases from seven landowners — including the City of Dufur.

“It’s free-market environmentalism,” said Ryland Moore, OWT’s project manager for Fifteen Mile Creek. “It’s a win-win for the landowner and the conservationist.”

Paulus agrees. “Our work is part of a growing national trend that uses the market to further environmental goals,” he said. “Rather than encouraging greater regulation to favor streams and fish, OWT works directly with landowners to find a cooperative solution that benefits all.”

Thanks in part to OWT’s water rights leasing program — along with other water conservation efforts by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, including installing removable dams and fish ladders — the Steelhead on Fifteen Mile Creek are thriving.

“We’re really proud of this stock,” said Rod French, Mid-Columbia District fish biologist for ODFW. “It’s a really pure genetic stock of Steelhead that we place a very high value on preserving. We’ve never introduced hatchery fish into this basin.”

The nonprofit OWT, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, gets most of its funding from individual and corporate donations as well as government and foundation grants. Last year, the firm had operating revenue of more than $500,000.

The firm uses part of that revenue to compensate landowners for their water rights. In Underhill’s case, water rights were donated to OWT “out of the kindness of his heart and the fact that he wants to see water in Fifteen Mile Creek for fish and water quality,” Moore said. But he added that OWT plans to renegotiate with Underhill to compensate him for his senior water rights.

Regardless, the alliance between the rancher and OWT “has worked out great for me,” Underhill said. “I have no complaints whatsoever about it.” That’s the result OWT seeks in all of its projects around the state, according to Moore.

“We try to make the community happy first,” he said. “We can only work with willing landowners. If they’re not willing, we’re not going to be very successful.”

For more information about the Oregon Water Trust’s work in the Hood Basin and around the state, go to www.owt.org.

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