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Drift Creek dilemma: Farmers continue to debate dam project

By Melissa Wagoner

It’s not about a dam – though one has become the face of the problem. It’s not even about the fish – though they feature prominently in the discussion. What the controversy around the proposal to add a dam on Drift Creek really comes down to is water – who has it, who wants it and where to get more of it – and both sides are feeling the burn.

“It’s not new and it’s not going away,” Dave Bielenberg said. He is chairman for the East Valley Water District (EVWD) – an irrigation district formed in 2002 for the purposes of supplying irrigation water to its members.

And Bielenberg should know. A farmer since 1973, he has been looking for a solution to the problem of irrigation water for his crops – currently a mixture of greenhouse crops, grass and vegetable seeds, wheat and timber – since he received a conditional use permit for water in the late 1980s.

“They would let us use the water on the condition that we would look for an alternative source of water,” Bielenberg recalled. “So, I got involved in the [Pudding River Basin Water Resources Development] Association and the association led to the water district.”

Currently 75 members strong, the EVWD’s main objective is the procurement and conservation of irrigation water for its members. But what is best for some may not be best for all.

“The proposal takes about 40 acres of my property,” Bob Qualey explained. The 75-year-old farmer owns land inside the inundation zone, near Fox Road and Victor Point Road, said.

A producer of cattle, hay and timber, Qualey’s own land is not irrigated.

“No, I don’t irrigate myself,” he admitted. “You can’t get a water right to irrigate. You can only get a right to store.”

But he does understand the difficulty the EVWD farmers are facing when it comes to the need for water.

“This whole area is short of water,” he said.

But what Qualey fears most, aside from losing acres of his land to water inundation for the sole benefit of others, is that once the natural flow of the
water is changed it cannot be reset.

“When we need it,” he cautioned, “we cannot get it back.”

The EVWD does not see it that way. With extensive research backing up the dam proposal, they were shocked when, on Nov. 22, 2019 the Oregon Water Resources Commission denied the application for a storage permit on Drift Creek.

“We did everything that the Resource Commission and the law required of us,” Bielenberg said.

“Part of doing a big project is doing your due diligence,” Lauren Reese, Executive Secretary for EVWD, added.

“We’ve done biological studies, archaeological studies and geotechnical studies. The district members have put a lot of money into hiring people who really know their stuff.”

This isn’t the only solution the EVWD has explored. Over the years there have been extensive studies looking at historical water use, current water use and different options for the future.

“That initial survey pointed out several things for us as far as historical use,” Bielenberg observed. “We found out we were using about half of what the State assumed we were using. We looked at ground water recharge, storage, wastewater reuse, importing water from the Santiam. We even looked at using Salem’s municipal, reused water. But that study pointed out the most economical was storage.”

The group also discovered a survey done in the 1960s identifying numerous possible storage sites and conducted their own, subsequent research into several of those areas, eventually landing on the one located on Drift Creek as the most viable.

“We looked at a fairly large project on Butte Creek,” Bielenberg said. “But after the earthquake in ‘93 we found out the dam was on the fault line. We looked at a dam in Rock Creek but it was on wetlands and along with the pumping it was not feasible.”

Now, many years and thousands of dollars later, it appears that another of the EVWD’s plans to solve the irrigation water issue has been shot down.

“My dad worked on [finding irrigation water] in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Bielenberg said. “We’ve got members whose grandparents worked on the issue of finding irrigation. We started this because of groundwater rights, but surface water is over-appropriated.”

“And it’s getting more difficult to drill a well,” Duane Eder said. He’s a fellow EVWD board member who previously grew cauliflower, beans, onions and hazelnuts and now grows grass and vegetable seed, west of Silverton. “Our wells are not good wells.”

“It’s all because of the groundwater depletion,” Bielenberg said. “That’s what’s driving it. And we’re trying to react.”

Those reactions have namely taken the form of water conservation through ever-increasing drip irrigation.

“You don’t see travelers anymore,” Eder said. “You see the drip.”

“It’s less evaporation,” Bielenberg confirmed. “More uniformity.”

Ultimately both Bielenberg and Eder view themselves as stewards of the land, working toward maintaining the acres they farm in a way that takes into account environmental impacts such as fish habitat, one of the main talking-points in the Drift Creek Dam case.

“We have studies that show [the dam] has a pretty substantial benefit to cut throat trout,” Reese said, identifying the species of note.

“Each year the creek will essentially run dry. It doesn’t really have a capacity for productive populations of fish. The function of the dam is we’re able to capture rainwater during the rainy season and release it during the dry season. And during that entire time, we would pass overflow. Being able to pass water through during the majority of the year would be of benefit.”

But Brian Posewitz, the Staff Attorney for WaterWatch – an organization devoted to protecting and restoring the natural flows of water in Oregon and which filed a proposal against the Drift Creek dam – has another view.

“The age of building dams across stream and river channels should largely be over because the dams cause so much harm – and there are many effective, recognized, less harmful ways to increase water supply,” Posewitz said.

“Channel spanning dams prevent fish migration, interfere with natural stream hydrology, and cause numerous water quality problems including problems with water temperatures and dissolved oxygen.”

Qualey also has concerns about the effect a dam on Drift Creek would have on fish populations.

“Why would they try to build a new dam today when they’re taking dams out today?” he questioned. “As a kid I fished for steelhead on the stream. I know there were steelhead and there could be again. Some of the best habitats on the stream are upstream from the proposed dam. And my grandkids play along that stream.”

It is partly those grandkids that Qualey is thinking of when he contemplates the possible inundation of his land.

“They want to use our ground because their ground is too valuable,” he mused. “If this project was good for all the people of Oregon, I couldn’t fight that, but maybe a dozen farmers are all it’s going
to benefit.”

Instead, Qualey thinks the EVWD should keep looking for other methods of irrigation, such as aquifer recharge – in which rainwater and reclaimed water is rerouted through the subsurface.

“It’s done a lot of places,” Qualey stated. “[Oregon State University] did research and said this would be a good area. This would help everybody. Everybody would benefit, not just a few farmers.”

In the meantime, on Jan. 24 the EVWD filed an appeal in the hopes of continuing to move forward with the proposed dam. Because, as Bielenberg sees it, the Drift Creek dam would be of public benefit.

“It’s certainly a public benefit project,” Bielenberg said. “Irrigated agriculture typically employs more people per acre than dryland farming. People say; you’re going to build a dam and flood this ground, that doesn’t help us. Anybody should be interested in the project because of the economic impact.”

In fact, Bielenberg sees the dam’s denial as a first step toward an uncertain future for irrigated farmers – and dryland farmers, too.

“Another big part of this project is a climate change resiliency effort,” he said. “A lot of the state relies on storing the water in solid form – snow and ice – and recently (the) Legislature recognized this is not going to be the answer going forward. We’re seeing irrigation systems where we’ve never seen them before throughout the country. We certainly have an appreciation and recognize the landowners who are opposing this issue. But people in that situation are

“When you look at the numbers, it’s inundating 300 acres for the benefit of tens of thousands of acres,” Reese continued. “But it’s a difficult issue.”

And possibly one of many difficult issues that are to come, according to Bielenberg, who predicts that the combination of less available water, dryer temperatures and changes in resource management will
only increase the number of conflicts like this one. On this point at least, Qualey agrees.

“I understand these guys need water,” he acknowledged. “I don’t fault them for that.”

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