Letter to the Editor: Farmer vs. farmer – Water dispute threatens to destroy lives, livelihoods

March 2015 Posted in Columnists & Opinion

For almost 15 years, I traveled across the U.S. working to save family farms from foreclosure, from erosion, from sprawl.

A number of things can take down a farm, but rarely did I ever find the threat coming from another farmer.

Farmers are a club of survivors who understand and respect one another’s appreciation for land, place, history and hard work, and they work hard to help one another make it from one year to the next.

That’s why I find the actions of the farmers who compose the East Valley Water District to be so sad.

The EVWD is composed of farmers in and around the Mount Angel area.

These farmers have been seeking alternative sources of water as they anticipate their own wells will one day be pumped dry, and they have their sites set on Drift Creek, a source that runs well outside the East Valley Water District.

The EVWD’s plan would dam Drift Creek, (the only un-damned creek flowing into the Pudding River), flooding over 300 acres of farmland in the Victor Point area, and destroying steelhead and salmon populations. The captured water would then be pumped some 10 to 20 miles to the Mount Angel area farmers.

Unsurprisingly, land owners in Victor Point vigorously oppose this proposal and fought to keep valley farmers from coming onto their property to conduct field tests.

Unfortunately, in mid-January, Marion Circuit Court Judge Claudia Burton ruled against the Victor Point farmers saying they had no grounds to prohibit the irrigation district’s entry to do field studies.

In a press release the EVWD minimized the impact of the judge’s ruling on Victor Point farmers by saying it it be the same if they were just buying a car. “Just as a potential buyer is allowed to test drive and check the car before deciding whether or not to purchase it, the EVWD is allowed to conduct tests on the Victor Point land to determine if the site is feasible.”

The problem with the EVWD’s analogy is that the Victor Point farmers are not interested in selling their farms, and have made that clear.

But as current law stands, that does not matter. Judge Claudia Burton says she sees this issue as leading to a potential disaster. “As the law is currently written,” she said from the bench, “a water district in Medford could claim land on Mt. Hood.”

She urged the legislature to consider changing this law. Unfortunately, our House Representative, Vic Gilliam, as quoted does not see a need for the Legislature to get involved in this issue, which is ironic, given that almost a million dollars in public funds have already been given to the East Valley Water District for this project.

The Victor Point farmers, on the other hand, have received nothing but grief and a bunch of legal bills as they try to protect land that lies far outside the EVWD.

There is a deep and dark history of farmers losing their land to water barons. Typically, though, that water is sent off to cities like Owen’s Valley’s sacrifice to the toilets, pools and lawns of Los Angeles, nearly 300 miles south. Typically, it’s not farmers preying on their own kind.

I hope, as the East Valley Water District considers its options – which of course must include planting less water intensive crops – it will step back from a plan that will destroy the lives and livelihoods of the very people they represent.

Naseem Rakha

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