Why water is Oregon's new gold
By Teresa Huntsinger
Oregon Environmental Council
For generations, most Oregonians have had the luxury of taking water for granted.
Today however, water isn’t as easy to come by. Oregonians who want to start up a business or establish a new farm aren’t able to secure new summertime water rights in much of the state. Worse yet, in many basins more water has been promised than our rivers and aquifers can deliver — resulting in periodic water shortages in basins such as the Klamath and Umatilla. Climate change and population growth are expected to further stress our water supplies in the future.
The time has come to start treating water like the precious resource it is, or risk grave effects on the state’s economy. The silver lining in our outdated water systems is that we have a vast opportunity to improve efficiency using readily available technologies. Just as energy providers have recognized that efficiency offers the cheapest source of new energy, investments in water conservation can have a huge payback for Oregon.
While manufacturing plants, cities and homeowners can and should play a role in using water more efficiently, the sector that can make the biggest difference is agriculture. Why? Farmers and ranchers use the largest share of Oregon’s water by far: 79 percent of the state’s overall water withdrawals. Municipal water providers use 7 percent comparatively, and industry uses less than 3 percent.
Irrigation is critical to Oregon agriculture, and agriculture is critical to Oregon’s economy. We grow more than 250 commodities in Oregon, requiring over 230,000 workers in peak season. In 2009, agriculture was linked to more than 15 percent of all economic activity in the state. 77 percent of the state’s agricultural production value comes from crops that depend on irrigation. So it’s fair to say that if Oregon’s agricultural sector fails to quickly adapt to today’s realities of water availability, we’ll all feel the economic pinch.
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